Cristiano Ronaldo always believed his talismanic form could be recaptured at Real Madrid as the Portuguese powerhouse returns to form ahead of the tantalising Champions League last 16 clash with Paris Saint-Germain.
Los Blancos host the French giants in the tie of the first knockout round, with Unai Emery’s side visiting the Spanish capital for the first leg on Wednesday night.
And their talisman has been singled out for criticism this season as Real have stuttered domestically, currently sitting fourth in La Liga, a mammoth 17 points of rivals Barcelona at the top.
Ronaldo, however, has returned to form in recent weeks, netting seven times in his last four outings, including a hat-trick in his side’s 5-2 destruction of Real Sociedad on Saturday.
It adds to braces in similarly impressive 7-1 and 4-1 victories against Deportivo and Valencia respectively as the star of the Santiago Bernabeu returns to form as the 2017/18 season enters the business end of proceedings.
In an interview with Goal after he picked up their Goal 50 award, Ronaldo said: “I always look to show my best level, but sometimes things don’t go as we would like them to. But experience has taught me that we have to keep working hard to achieve our goals.”
Although he may have endured his struggles in Spain, the 33-year-old has been electric on the continent this season, scoring nine goals before Christmas to become the first player to find the net in every Champions League group game as Madrid seek a third successive triumph in the competition.
Madrid still finished second in their group behind Tottenham, however, leading to a tricky last 16 tie in which they play away in the second leg. And ahead of Wednesday’s first tie with PSG in Madrid, the Champions League’s all-time leading goalscorer said: “We are going to play against a great team with excellent players, which we respect very much.
“But we have already shown that Real Madrid have a very strong and united group, with a lot of experience in this competition. We know we have to be very focused and play two very good games to move forward in the Champions League.”
Once domestic and continental endeavours come to a close in 2017/18, attention for Ronaldo will shift to the pursuit of global glory at this summer’s World Cup.
Portugal will head to Russia as reigning European champions, and there’s a belief within their camp that they can upset the odds once again and compete with the best teams on the planet for football’s grandest prize.
Ronaldo added: “We know that Portugal are not favourites in the World Cup. For me, the favourites are Spain, Germany, France, Argentina and Brazil. We are part of a group of teams that know they can compete at the highest level.”
If Real can sustain another Champions League challenge and Portugal go deep into World Cup, then expect Ronaldo to be there or thereabouts again when the Goal 50 returns at the end of the calendar year.
Defending that trophy and the Champions League are two of many targets for Ronaldo in 2018. And of his Goal 50 award, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner said: “It is a pleasure to receive the Goal 50 trophy once again. I want to thank all those who voted for me and, above all, thank my team-mates, the coaches and Real Madrid staff. Without them, it would not have been possible to win it.”
Cristiano Ronaldo led the goal-scoring with a hat-trick after Lucas Vasquez made the breakthrough inside the first minute while Toni Kroos curled one in from outside the area as well.
Here, we look at three things we learned from the encounter.
RONALDO REDISCOVERS LA LIGA FORM
Despite his poor showing at Levante, Ronaldo appears to be regaining some form in the league. A treble against Sociedad means he’s now scored 15 La Liga goals against them at the Bernabeu itself, more than he has against any other opposition,
His hat-trick was also his third goal-scoring return in the last four league outings, accounting for 39% of his tally in Spain’s top flight this season.
The Portuguese now also holds the distinction of leading the league’s goal-scoring charts for the second half of the season with seven to his name, confirming his resurgence in the division.
Against Sociedad though, it wasn’t just his goal-scoring that impressed. He set up Lucas Vasquez for the opener and should’ve had another assist when Karim Benzema’s effort was deflected wide.
He also hit the post on one occasion and his movement was devastating. He’s starting to look at his sharpest again.
INTENSITY IS KEY FOR REAL MADRID
With the hosts opening the scoring inside the first minute, the fact that they began the game like a house on fire is a fairly easy conclusion to draw but it’s also a significant one.
Too often this season have Madrid started games slowly or taken their foot off the gas too soon. On this occasion, they maintained the tempo, launching wave after wave of attacks despite the early breakthrough.
The players seemed up for the clash and were relentless in the first half. Having already scored four before half-time, naturally things settled in the second period, especially as Zinedine Zidane began to make changes with the Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain in midweek in mind.
But the job was done by then and perhaps a similar approach throughout the campaign would’ve seen them in a far better position at this stage.
FORMATION DILEMMA FOR ZIDANE
The 4-4-2 formation that has worked wonders for Real Madrid on occasion in the past and was revived to great effect against Sociedad.
The movement and intelligence of the personnel is what makes the system work although on paper, it may seem a little rigid.
Marco Asensio regularly stepped up and made it a front three in attack or dropped in behind Ronaldo and Karim Benzema with Vasquez pushing forward.
The problem however arises at the other end of the pitch and that’s where their concerns will lie when they face PSG.
Luka Modric and Kroos on their own make for a soft centre. With the full-backs overlapping, there’s also a lot of pressure on the centre-backs to read danger early and be on top of things. Raphael Varane in particular has looked suspect all season.
Sociedad got in way too easily to score their first with the Frenchman and Dani Carvajal behind caught out of position.
The system may be potent in an attacking sense but certainly leaves Madrid vulnerable at the back.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick after Lucas Vasquez opened the scoring inside the first minute while Toni Kroos also got on the score sheet.
Here, we rate the Madrid players on their performance at the Bernabeu.
Keylor Navas – Didn’t have a save to make but some lax defending saw him concede twice. 5
Dani Carvajal – Was caught out of position for Sociedad’s first which tarnished an otherwise good performance. 6
Sergio Ramos – Was itching to get involved in attack and did make a few inroads but there was plenty to sort out at the back which he didn’t do. 6
Raphael Varane – Suspect again. Must shoulder some of the blame for both goals conceded. Dwells on the ball for too long and keeps getting caught out of position. 5
Marcelo – Great assist for Ronaldo’s second with a vintage Marcelo overlap and drilled cut-back. Made three key passes from his full-back role. 7
Lucas Vasquez – Provided genuine width and showed great industry down the right. Did well to score the early goal and created plenty for his team-mates as well. 7
Luka Modric – A rare subdued performance from the Croatian. Tried to drive forward but seemed stifled by the system with only Kroos alongside him in the middle. 6
Toni Kroos – A trademark sublime finish from outside the area to get on the score sheet. Dictated Real’s build-up play expertly with his near-perfect passing and also made a few fine tackles. 8
Marco Asensio – His direct running and movement provided the drive that ensured Madrid maintained a high tempo after the early breakthrough. 7
Cristiano Ronaldo – Starting to look like himself in La Liga. Scored a hat-trick but could’ve had more. Showed good movement for his first and took full advantage of a mismatch from the corner to score his second before rounding the keeper for his third. Also set up the opener with some great wing-play, a throwback to his younger days. 9
Karim Benzema – How did he not score? He had couple of great chances, hitting the post from Marcelo’s pass and then having his effort from Ronaldo’s cut-back deflected wide. Skying Bale’s ball across from close range summed up his night. 5
Isco – Didn’t make an impact after his introduction in the second half. 5
Mateo Kovacic – Tried a couple of eye of the needle passes that didn’t really come off. 5
Gareth Bale – Proved to be a real threat in the closing stages and should’ve had an assist. 6