The Champions League is back and Real Madrid take on Manchester United at the Bernabeu on Wednesday. Graham Hunter writes for the Paddy Power Blog on why United are going to find it hard to cope with former hero Cristiano Ronaldo
When Steve McManaman produced the name of Manchester United to face Real Madrid during the Champions League knockout round draw back in December there must have been many United fans who thought the Liverpool legend had done them the first favour of his career.
Not only were Spain’s champions languishing in third place in La Liga they immediately went out and lost 3-2 at Málaga to drop 16 points behind league leaders Barcelona.
The mighty Santiago Bernabéu stadium, which Sir Alex Ferguson’s team visit on Wednesday night for the third time under the Scot’s management, had been brewing its unhappiness
Against Espanyol the match-announcer, for the first time in the ‘Special’ One’s reign, didn’t read out the phrase “… and coach, José Mourinho” at the end of the team announcement.
Why? To avoid the booing, jeering and whistling which had been growing week by week.
When Mourinho’s name was re-introduced for the next home league game, Real Sociedad, it received easily the most hostile ‘bronca’ (abuse) of his reign.
Real Madrid were in disarray
Perhaps still more encouragingly for United aficionados, one of the biggest running themes in the never-ending Real Madrid soap opera was Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘unhappiness’.
They would have easily been forgiven for thinking: ‘what better time to receive an old friend, applaud him for days of wine and roses and then spank his team’s backside?”
Ronaldo announced his nose was out of joint and that the club ‘knew why’ and he was hammered by Leo Messi in the Ballon D’Or voting having expected to win. Then came potentially the best news for United fans.
In short succession Ronaldo suffered a further twist to his troublesome right ankle, strained a leg muscle in the defeat to Granada and, most interestingly of all, had a massive blow up with Mourinho.
It came directly after the vital 2-0 home Copa del Rey win over Valencia in mid-January. Towards the end of the hard-fought victory where the visitors had scorned a hatful of chances to score, Mourinho was visibly unhappy with Ronaldo’s decision-making and positioning in the final few minutes. He shouted, he gesticulated, he returned to the dugout with steam emanating from both ears.
In the dressing room it was all off at Ludlow. Mourinho criticised Ronaldo’s work ethic, commitment to closing down the game at 2-0 and the fact that he hadn’t paid attention to the coach’s forcefully yelled instructions.
The player hit back with justified comments about the nerve it took to hammer him when he stepped up to support his beleaguered manager on every possible occasion – on the pitch, in the media and during some notable goal celebrations – when powerful journalists and growing number of fans were attacking him.
But however attractive all these details are to those at United who yearn to return to Wembley, scene of the club’s first European Cup in 1968 and a place which now needs some reparation after the most comprehensive defeat of Sir Alex’s entire 26-year reign, against Barcelona in 2011, the fact is that all that glitters is not gold.
Against this backdrop of confusion, aggression, doubt and a title weakly defended Ronaldo has been utterly and absolutely sublime. The worse things get, the better he performs.
In the 10 games since the Champions League draw was made in Nyon Ronaldo has scored 13 times, including three hat-tricks.
What is most admirable is that while others have let their form peak and trough like the graph on a lie detector in the manager’s office at a horsemeat plant, Ronaldo has always led from the front.
At Granada in a 1-0 defeat his team stunk the house out. But his work ethic and his attitude proved that he’s unwilling to accept the vagaries of form or fitness. Even when literally nothing is going for him he’s still up for it.
For a player of that talent, wealth and achievement to be in a side so fractured that they barely even got one effort on goal against a team which was nearly relegated last season must have been frustrating beyond words.
But his attitude, play and goal record is extremely reminiscent of that 2007/8 season at United when he won the title, the Champions League, Ballon D’Or and FIFA World Player.
Ronaldo is carrying Madrid
Some months before Ronaldo banged out 42 goals during that amazing season Carlos Queiroz told a friend of mine that United planned to use Ronaldo as a central striker a great deal in the coming 12 months.
Partly because Sir Alex Ferguson and Queiroz thought he could become an effective new weapon, partly to free Wayne Rooney to play on the left but partly because ‘Cristiano needs to have the ceiling raised, he needs a challenge because he’s so, so talented that, otherwise, he’ll get bored or hit a comfort zone’.
It proved to be a dazzling idea. Ronaldo carried an ankle problem all that season, often phoned his friend and former fitness coach Walter Di Salvo to vent his frustration at having to carry an injury and at having to play ‘out of position’.
But adversity was his stimulus. The tougher the going, the more he produced.
So it is at the moment. His form is such that he’s carrying the team. No question.
His determination, his goals and his naked ambition to win Real Madrid the ‘Decima’ (their 10th Champions Cup) have converted the Bernabéu faithful, previously a little chilly and underwhelmed by his manner, into an adoring public.
His name is now, finally, chanted, the front cover of Marca proclaims him the new Alfredo Di Stefano, his overall team play is superior to that at United and the goal flow is prodigious.
The three which destroyed Sevilla at the weekend take him beyond the legendary Paco Gento (six European Cup winners’s medals) to sixth in Real Madrid’s all-time scoring list – after three and a half seasons!
He has 182 goals in 179 competitive matches and now only Hugo Sánchez, Ferenc Puskas, Santillana, Di Stéfano and Raúl are ahead of him – but nobody on that list has scored at a better goal per appearance rate.
‘The fact that the Bernabéu is finally singing my name, that the ‘feeling’ has changed is a dream come true for me’, Ronaldo told AS last week.
‘The support has taken note that I give body and soul for this club and the amount of affection and appreciation I now get on the street, at the games and from fans in the media touches me. I can really feel that the Bernabéu has taken me as one of ‘their own’ now.
‘It still surprises me that I was viewed and treated differently before because I’ve not changed. It’s just that more people have focussed on how much I give to the team, how determined I am to win the ‘Decima’ and set aside other, less important things.
‘I’m even noticing fewer insults and fewer chants of ‘Cristiano we hope you die’ at other grounds around the country. I can’t please all the people all the time – not even God manages that. It’s part of a big change since I told the President that I was unhappy here. I’m enjoying my football, I like playing with these team mates and I swear on my son’s life that when I was sad it was never, under any circumstances, to do with money.
‘As for what happened with the manager, the things which happen in the dressing room stay there. “It’s a personal matter which is now all sorted out – everything’s fine’.
As for the utter nonsense people used to trot out about Ronaldo not being a ‘big game’ player it’s worth noting that he’s made scoring against Barcelona a personal domain in recent Clásicos, he perpetually puts Atlético Madrid to the sword in derby matches, he hit two goals and an assist while Madrid were knocked out of the Champions League semi-final by Bayern Munich last season and this term he’s the competition’s leading scorer.
In a variety of interviews Ronaldo has made it clear that he thinks Madrid, pound for pound, are better than United but that they have to ‘go out and prove it’.
The loss of a world class keeper like Iker Casillas who has yet to taste defeat in four games against United, is a negative. But Diego López, signed from Sevilla, was once a very firm target for United themselves after playing them twice in the Champions League for Villarreal and not conceding a goal.
Equally, part of Ronaldo’s assertion may stem from his manager’s record against Sir Alex. Mourinho, with Porto, Chelsea and Inter has gone head to head with the United boss in 13 League, Champions League, Cup or League cup matches winning six, drawing five and losing only twice.
One key element for United, in this evenly balanced tie, is how they attack in Madrid. Any team, literally anyone, who is caught upfield and allows even this rather fractured version of Mourinho’s Madrid to break at speed will be punished.
Ronaldo, too, is at his absolute best when careering away upfield in a one v two or two v three battle just like 2007/8 at United.
If England’s champions-elect can defend, press and keep possession with calm and intelligence and not be caught on the counter then it’ll be over to Ronaldo to produce something special in order for Madrid to take an advantage to Manchester.
On his current form you might be wise not to bet against that happening.