Real Madrid hosted Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday night in their last match of the Champions League group stage.
In the final minutes of the first half, Cristiano Ronaldo tried to control a long pass from Raphael Varane. His first touch was not perfect and the ball escaped, going a bit farther than he intended. The Portuguese star and his marker, Borussia Dortmund’s left-back, raced to the ball, apparently starting at a similar distance away. Ronaldo arrived in second place.
“Three years ago, he’d never lost that sprint,” the ageing socio to my right commented. I had switched seats with a friend for this match, moving to a part of the stadium I’d rarely visited before. It’s always fun to see how different 90 minutes become depending on which section of the Santiago Bernabeu you sit on. Not only the viewing angle, but the subjects socios touch upon vary remarkably from one section to another.
Ronaldo’s evolution from aggressive, impossibly fast winger to unstoppable scoring machine — although in a slower version — has been analysed in detail often in the last couple of seasons. So much in fact that Real Madrid fans already know well what to expect from him.
During Wednesday’s match, we saw at least three instances when Ronaldo lost an apparently winnable race for the ball to a Borussia defender. One of them could have finished in a goal had the Portuguese striker gotten there before his opponent.
The vast majority of the Bernabeu has digested this understandable evolution from its top striker. Any supporter who follows Real Madrid week after week knows that Ronaldo will be there for the finishing touch when his teammates create the chance, but that his trademark runs on the left wing are a thing of the past.
That said, the stadium did become angry with Ronaldo on Wednesday night. However, what frustrated fans attending this hugely entertaining match was not his faltering top speed, but his carelessness with the ball in his own half.
It looks as though Ronaldo, 31, has started to try to compensate his new, more pragmatic, less spectacular style with a collection of unpractical tricks. His step-overs made sense when he ran on the wing toward the opposition’s goal, but now he applies them when he’s standing still with a defender in front of him. And they don’t work: no movement, no trick. No opponent has fallen for that in the last few seasons, and it seems unlikely that they will.
The step-overs, funny as they are, did not lead Ronaldo to lose the ball against Borussia. Instead, it was an ill-advised roulette in front of Madrid’s bench that tipped the Bernabeu tide against the Portuguese striker. Ronaldo failed to complete the move and wasted possession in his own half, with 2-1 on the scoreboard and Borussia pressing strongly for the equaliser. Too fancy for the Real Madrid faithful, and that is when he heard the boo boys.
The Portuguese star reacted immediately, tracked back and kicked the ball out of bounds before Borussia could threaten Real Madrid. Irritated and unhappy with the whistles, Ronaldo made a couple of gestures to the fans before Borussia threw in.
A few minutes earlier, he had missed an extraordinary chance to get on the score sheet after a fantastic pass from Lucas Vazquez, and that could have had an impact on his decision to make an extravagant play. But again, the Bernabeu did not complain about his miss, but about his losing possession.
Fancy dribbles aside, Ronaldo’s match on Wednesday was extremely competitive. Even though he did not put that glorious chance away, during the match he left three of his teammates in front of the goalkeeper with a display of generosity that James Rodriguez, Lucas Vazquez and especially Karim Benzema did not take advantage of.
Ronaldo did look exhausted after chasing a couple of long passes in the final 10 minutes. In his new role and given his recent history of injuries, manager Zinedine Zidane will have to give Ronaldo more rest. Replacing Benzema before Ronaldo on Wednesday did not look like a sensible way of protecting Madrid’s top scorer.
After Borussia’s leveller at the end of the match, my neighbour swore for a couple of minutes and then went back to the Ronaldo issue: “He still looks the part, but he needs to know when to cut the fancy stuff and, yes, when to ask to be subbed.”
At this new stage of Ronaldo’s unique career, the wisdom from the veterans at the Bernabeu could become a recipe for even more success. It’s up to the Portuguese striker to reflect on it.