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Ronaldo needs central role in El Clásico

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Madrid's Portuguese star has a preference to play out wide on the left but a more central position against Barcelona could help Los Blancos to a crucial win.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Rafa Benitez needs to get his tactics spot on if Real Madrid are to beat Barcelona in El Clásico on Saturday - and central to those tactics is talisman Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Portuguese footballer-turned-film star is fit and ready to feature in the club's biggest game of the season and not only will he want to outshine nemesis Lionel Messi if the Argentine gets the green light to play, he will in-turn be out to help his side to three points that will help them leapfrog Luis Enrique's side back to La Liga's summit.

A five-goal demolition of Espanyol aside, the 30-year-old has yet to hit his prime this season and Benitez will need the former Manchester United man to be at the top of his game when the Catalans come to town.

While some question marks remain over just who will line-up against Barcelona this weekend, such as the inclusion of Karim Benzema and the fitness of full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo, another looms on the role Ronaldo will play in the Madrid line-up - out wide, or through the middle?

Ronaldo favours a position out wide on the left but when his coach handed him that opportunity last time out against Sevilla, he disappeared and Los Blancos suffered their first loss of the season. While plenty of players were below par in Andalusia and injuries played their part, the biggest disappearing act was played by the Ballon d'Or candidate, who played in a front three that saw Gareth Bale play through the middle and Isco out on the right.

"Ronaldo prefers to play on the left," said former Blancos boss Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian certainly got the best out of the forward, with Ronaldo enjoying his best goalscoring campaign under Ancelotti last season. The current set-up under Benitez seems to fit Ronaldo as a more central forward than out wide, however.

The Portuguese international's poor performance in Seville was not a stand-out example of why he should play through the middle but it was one of a number of reasons why he should be content to adapt to play in a more central position, despite his apparent desire to stick to a role he has become accustomed to in the Spanish capital.

The speed with which he was known for during his earlier years on the pitch has disappeared and Ronaldo can no longer beat his man with a touch of the ball and sheer pace. He has been lacking in that department of late, something caused by his problematic knee as well as his years getting no fewer. That kind of pace is especially crucial out wide and against a player such as Dani Alves Ronaldo will have plenty of problems in beating his men in a head-to-head battle. He's better leaving that to Marcelo, who has been superb so far this season before his injury setback.

The other thing going for Ronaldo out wide was his ability to step inside his man and launch a thunderbolt into the back of the net. Those kind of goals are fewer and further between, with that troublesome knee being little help again, and while Bale and James Rodriguez look deadly from long range, Ronaldo does not possess that shooting ability that scared defences from 30 yards out only a few years ago.

Despite Ancelotti largely bowing to Ronaldo's desire to play out wide during his time at the Santiago Bernabeu, much of his goals were ‘poachers' goals. Goals where he could still read the game better and quicker than many defenders and where he could be lethal from close range. Playing through the centre emphasises that kind of play and playing through the middle offers a player desperate for goals the best opportunity to get them.

As well as the attacking side of Ronaldo's game, playing through the centre should also benefit Madrid's defence. Centrally, Ronaldo does not need to focus on tracking back as much as he would out wide, helping Marcelo deal with Alves on the flank, and can instead focus his fitness on the attacks. Benitez is more wary of this aspect than most, hence his desire to play him through the middle.

Although having a clear presence out wide Ronaldo played centrally, and enjoyed it, in some of the big matches last season - including the home match against Barcelona that Madrid won 3-1. He also shone in the same 4-4-2 line-up in the 3-0 victory at Liverpool in the Champions League. Both matches forced Ancelotti's hand due to the injury absence of Bale and the inclusion of Isco in a midfield four.

Ronaldo not only shone there - he seemed to enjoy it. His position and the line-up worked for him and it worked for the team with him scoring in both matches. The fact Karim Benzema partnered him in a front two helped and if the Frenchman is ready and available this weekend it could help Benitez ease his star man in to the central role he wants him to play.

How fluid Benitez allows his starting eleven to be could also be key. The Spaniard likes his team to be rigid but if he has all his star attacking names available this weekend fluidity and tinkering in attack could be crucial to victory, with Ronaldo being part of that. He, Bale and James can all played across the attack and provide various options for Barcelona to contend with.

Ronaldo may still prefer a position out on the left but the Portuguese star should take one for the team this weekend and line-up through the middle to help his side to what would be a huge victory in the season.