Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick against Espanyol on Sunday night may have propelled the Portuguese star back to the top of Real Madrid's scoring charts but it also brought one old question back to the fore. Is the club's talisman a flat-trak bully?
The 30-year-old's treble helped Zinedine Zidane's men to a thumping 6-0 victory over the Catalans and took his personal goal tally for the season to 19, one more than Karim Benzema, but also sparked plenty of discussion over his ability to hit top form against the ‘bigger' clubs Madrid face.
His trio, a perfect hat-trick that consisted of a goal with his left foot, right foot and head, meant he has scored eight goals against Espanyol alone this season, with a fantastic five coming in the 6-0 victory for Madrid in the reverse fixture earlier this season.
On top of that, it meant that 89.4 per cent of Ronaldo's goals so far this season have come against sides in the bottom half of La Liga. The forward has scored 17 goals in 13 matches against teams in the bottom ten of the division, enjoying his time in front of goal against the likes of Espanyol and Rayo Vallecano.
That stat looks good for Ronaldo and Madrid fans but his performances in front of goal against teams in the top ten of the division do not look so great. The No.7 has netted just twice in nine matches against sides in the top ten. Those goals came in victories at Celta Vigo (1-2) and Eibar (0-2).
Factoring in Champions League matches, in which Ronaldo has scored eleven times in the six Group Stage matches, the stats give further weight to those who believe he excels against the ‘smaller' clubs and disappears in the big matches. With his six goals in two matches against Malmo being taken into account, a staggering 46.6 per cent of the player's goals this season in all competitions have come in two matches - against the Swedish outfit and Espanyol.
In the matches against Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla and Valencia, arguably six of Madrid's toughest matches of the season, the former Manchester United man has failed to find the back of the net and Los Blancos have taken just five points from a possible 18.
In those matches it is worth noting that he did at least provide an assist in the 2-2 draw at Valencia, a match which ultimately cost Rafa Benítez his job, but that assist stands alone. It is fair to say Ronaldo has underperformed in matches where it has really mattered this season.
Of course, he is not alone in those sub-standard performances. The blame cannot be fully at the feet of the Portuguese international for Madrid's failures in the big matches. Something deeper caused such a poor return of points. Los Blancos are far from a one-man team and while Ronaldo is the star, the squad is good enough to take a much better return with players such as Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Luke Modric, Isco and James Rodriguez in their ranks. Madrid have been poor collectively.
It may be fair to say that the team suffers as a result of Ronaldo's performances, however. He is the leader of the team on and off the pitch, despite the captain's armband being elsewhere, and the knock-on impact of Ronaldo not having a good day at the office is obvious. An under-performing Ronaldo is not good for Real Madrid.
The worrying thing for Madridistas is the clear difference in his performances and statistics against the top sides and those in the bottom ten of the division but the defence, however weak, for the star man is that he should, of course, find things easier against the sides Madrid are expected to comfortably beat. Ronaldo's total goal tally this season puts him in with a great chance of winning the Pichichi award for another season and he is always going to find the back of the net on a more regular basis against the sides poorer defences. The going is always going to be tougher against the likes of Barça and Atlético.
This ‘flat-trak bully' status is nothing new. Ronaldo had read and heard it all before but silenced his critics with goals in big matches, namely in El Clásico contests both in La Liga and in the Copa del Rey - with his header clinching the cup title against Barcelona in dramatic fashion in Valencia. He also found goals against Atlético Madrid in the final of the Champions League, albeit from the spot with the match already won, and against Bayern Munich in the semi-final the same season. He has netted hat-tricks in derby matches in La Liga and on big European nights.
Now he must produce that kind of response again. Madrid have a big home match against Athletic Club coming up and welcome Atlético Madrid to the Santiago Bernabéu at the end of the month. Madrid must win both to remain in with a chance of winning the title and Ronaldo needs to be at the top of his game. The same goes for the Champions League double-header against Roma and against Barcelona at the Camp Nou next month.
This time last season Cristiano had scored against Atlético Madrid, one goal against Villarreal, a hat-trick against both Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo and once in the victory against Barcelona on home soil. Perhaps the difference comes down to the man in charge and how Ronaldo fits into that system.
Now, with those big games coming up and playing under a coach the Portuguese forward seems to enjoy playing under, his big-game status will be answered once again. "Zidane has come with a different idea and work regime and the players feel better and we have to keep going like that," Ronaldo said after Sunday's victory against Espanyol. Ronaldo will now look to keep going like that on a personal level to help Madrid to silverware this season.