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Ronaldo’s Return To Form Comes At The Right Time For Real

Real Madrid v Girona - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

As Real Madrid swept through Girona last weekend enroute to a thrilling 6-3 victory at the Santiago Bernabeau, there was a moment of relief for the home crowd. It wasn’t because their side eventually closed out a game in which their ever-battling opponents refused to go away. Nor, was it down to the fact that Real had closed the gap on city rivals Atletico in second place following their collapse in Villareal. These occurrences were satisfying but the harsh truth is that in late March, where titles are usually won and lost for clubs like Real, league games are irrelevant for the remainder of the campaign with complete emphasis placed on the upcoming Champions League quarter-finals. That’s understandable, given the circumstances, with domestic matches simply used by management as an opportunity to rest and rotate personnel. However, the players selected have been handed a golden chance to play themselves into form ahead of the more important fixtures left on the schedule. And there’s one individual who has comprehensively capitalized on that chance.

“Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated, “ was the response offered by Mark Twain after learning his obituary had been mistakenly written. Cristiano Ronaldo must have been tempted to submit a similar response following his four-goal performance at the weekend. The Portuguese international has come in for stern criticism following a disappointing first half of the year but, instead of verbally biting back at his doubters, Ronaldo has allowed his footballing to do the talking for him. And with a return of 17 goals since January, his roaring form has provided a much better response than any famous quote could offer. The 59,000 fans in the Bernabeau last Sunday, who witnessed the club icon mark his return to form with an outstanding display in front of goal, would certainly agree.

It can’t have been easy for such a determined and passionate player to suddenly become a liability for his side. Although his build-up play and movement off the ball was as vital as ever, Ronaldo’s dormant run seriously harmed Madrid. As our very own Om Arvind points out in the graphic below, his xG map has recently started to balance itself out to a level we’d expect from the Ballon d’Or winner. But up until the last couple of months, where he’s thankfully started hitting the back of the net at a normal rate, the difference between his expected and actual production was staggering. Prior to him netting twice in the thrashing of Deportivo back in January, he held a negative score of around -6.

There weren’t many who would have predicted such a decrease in the forward’s numbers after his sensational run towards the end of last season. And that’s what made the downfall even more shocking. Ronaldo’s contributions to Madrid’s double-winning accolades last year were simply astonishing. Two goals here, a hat-trick there and then another hat-trick and back to a double. It wasn’t exactly an insane thought to ponder if he was actually human. As fun as it is to see Madrid triumph in the biggest matches on the world’s biggest stage, Ronaldo’s form pushed the enjoyment up another level. That sort of ability is reserved for the truly elite talent, and by putting the likes of Manuel Neuer and the formidable Atletico & Juve defences to the sword on a weekly basis, there was no denying the impact that the Portuguese had on his side’s highly successful campaign. Of course the only problem with producing such great numbers is that it becomes even more glaring once the contributions suddenly begin to dry up.

A return of four goals in the first half of the league campaign was unacceptable for a player celebrating the most recent of his five Ballon d’Or wins and the critics quickly swarmed. Detractors claimed he was finished while those in northern Spain referenced the poor form as a reason why his comparison to a certain Argentinian was never a serious one. But for Ronaldo, it was about staying patient and believing he would eventually find his form. And for Real, that couldn’t have come at a better time. As the legendary number 7 ran rampant on Deportivo, he followed it up with a double salvo versus the mightily impressive Valencia before a hat-trick against Real Sociedad left him as prepared as ever for the Paris Saint Germain clash.

For Real Madrid, who entered the contest upon being eliminated from the Copa del Rey and had to suffer through the ignominy of watching the unbeaten Barcelona storm ahead in the Primera Division standings, it was a season-defining clash. A club with the stature and status as Real were facing the humiliating reality of seeing their campaign end in February. The last time that nightmare occurred, a spiky-haired winger from Manchester arrived in the summer for a then world-record fee. Ronaldo has rarely experienced the feeling of partaking in a meaningless final few months to close out the season, and having endured a miserable year, he was determined to prove his worth in the biggest match of the campaign.

To no-one’s surprise, Ronaldo stepped up to the occasion. An Adrien Rabiot away-goal did little to deter the defending European Champions from the task at hand, and a Ronaldo penalty on the verge of half-time offered him, and his teammates, all the momentum they needed heading into a crucial second-half. Unai Emery weirdly panicked at the thought of taking a 1-1 draw back to France which allowed Real to run rampant on a disorganised Paris side. Ronaldo gestured towards a Marco Asensio cross to put Los Blancos in front before Marcelo doubled their lead. The return leg was a far more comfortable outing for a defensively-sound Madrid team but it wouldn’t be a Champions League win without their Portuguese forward getting on the scoresheet. Ronaldo rose highest to meet Lucas Vasquez’ cross to hammer the final nail in PSG’s European coffin. It was cometh the hour, cometh the man for a player who had suddenly found his magic touch again.

Ronaldo did fail to convert a couple of golden opportunities over both legs but when you manage to find yourself in the right position as often as he does, you’re bound to have a few embarrassing misses attached to your resumé. The problem was that, unlike in years past when such glorious opportunities went awry, Ronaldo failed to make up for the misses. Against PSG however, he turned his fortune around and helped inspire Real to a much-needed victory. For club and player it has become a turning point in expectations and perception. Suddenly Ronaldo sees himself in the mix for the Pichici as he trails current leader Lionel Messi by just three goals while Real, having been written off by the media earlier on in the season, find themselves as favourites to pick up a third successive European Cup. Its been quite the turnaround from both parties.

Following his Champions League exploits, Ronaldo returned to pick up where he left off domestically as he grabbed five goals in the league matches sandwiched between both PSG ties. It could have been more had Zinedine Zidane not wrapped his best player in cotton wool for contests against Leganes and Espanyol. The Frenchman is attempting to find the right balance between continuing to capitalise on the player’s good form while trying to ensure he has enough rest for the games that matter. It has been so far, so good as Ronaldo continues to reap the benefits of such an approach. His contributions in the Eibar victory came before the scintillating goal-glut triumph versus Girona with the 33-year-old resembling anything but a player past his prime.

Perhaps we should have seen the reversal in form coming all along. After all, Ronaldo has never been shy of confidence and his self-belief was always going to shine through eventually. But for a player that became the victim of much criticism, with his own fans briefly turning on him, there’s admiration to be sent his way for his ability to bounce back from his catastrophic run. A player that prides himself on being the best was suddenly deemed as one of his side’s worst players with rumours escalating regarding the uncertain future he faced in the Spanish capital. For Ronaldo it served as even more motivation to return to the dominant force he once was and as PSG can attest to, that moment has finally arrived. With the pivotal Juventus clash just around the corner, Real’s marvelous maestro couldn’t have picked a better time to reclaim his status as the world’s greatest.

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