Ronaldo wins fifth Ballon d'Or but Real Madrid star's toughest challenge still ahead

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A sixth Ballon D'Or crown will not come easy for Ronaldo.

Peak Cristiano Ronaldo was reached this week, in a multitude of ways, when football’s grand ego received a fifth Ballon d’Or near the summit of Paris’ iconic Eiffel Tower.

Sharp suit, eyebrows plucked to such perfection that a Kardashian would ‘throw shade’ at them and a self-satisfied thumbs up. This was fittingly gaudy further confirmation, if needed, about the Portuguese’s unchecked ascension to phenom.

Away from the diatribes about the sport’s premier narcissist and the trophy which caters to this behaviour, an innate truth is to be found.

To move level with the apparently incomparable Lionel Messi on a quintet of victories is incredible.

But to achieve parity from 4-1 down to the Argentine speaks volumes about a figure who has allied insatiable desire and divine talent like no other figure in the storied history of the Beautiful Game.

Another supreme challenge awaits in 2018. For the first time since the Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder seven years ago, existential threats to football’s duopoly can be found in both the rise of Neymar and increasing prominence of a rising Real Madrid superstar.

The question now is whether Ronaldo – and even Messi, to a lesser extent – can go to the well once more?

The likes of PSG star Neymar will be serious contenders in 2018.

The likes of PSG star Neymar will be serious contenders in 2018.

Ronaldo’s sweeping up of the individual honours has come at a time when careers are traditionally beginning to wind down. Of the multiple Ballon d’Or winners, only fellow Madrid luminary Alfredo Di Stefano was older when he collected his last one – the Argentine at 33 in 1959 edging out his Portuguese successor by one year.

France playmaker Michel Platini was 30 when handed it for the last time. Johan Cruyff’s run of success ended at 27.

There have been diverging hints this term about which fork Ronaldo is charging down. Just two of his 67 attempts on goal in La Liga have gone in, yet in the Champions League he’s become the first footballer to score in all six group matches.

That European competition also defined his greatness in 2016/17. An incredible 10 strikes were registered in the knockouts on the way to Real becoming the first club to return the trophy since AC Milan from 1988-90.

History will need to be repeated to hold off the pretenders to his throne during a year which will be defined by World Cup 2018.

Chief among them is Neymar. With the lavish Paris Saint-Germain project built around the €222 million (Dh961m) forward and with Brazil installed as favourites for next summer’s global extravaganza, usurpation could be at hand.

An enemy within also exists for Ronaldo. The irrepressible Isco was unquestionably Spain’s best performer this year, head coach Zinedine Zidane unpicking his latent talents.

The playmaker already looks on course to better last season’s combined tallies of eight assists and 11 goals in La Liga and the Champions League.

If Madrid become European kings for a third time in a row, the Andalusian might be their major source of inspiration.

Ronaldo’s unquenchable drive to be No1 means he will be aware of old rivals and emerging claimants.

Not that their challenge will create fear. Precedent dictates it’ll only drive him to new heights.

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UAE football must benefit from moment in the sun hosting FIFA Club World Cup UAE

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The UAE is set to take centre stage.

The eyes of world football return to the UAE on Wednesday evening.

After seven years away, the 2017 Club World Cup kicks-off in earnest when Al Jazira, the sole Emirates entrants, battle the veteran semi-professionals of Auckland City. At stake in the resplendent Hazza bin Zayed Stadium is a place in the tournament proper and the true oasis in the middle of the desert; a potential semi-final meeting with European grandees Real Madrid.

Football in the UAE is in need of the adrenaline burst provided by such exalted visitors. The heralded ‘Golden Generation’ of Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and company was recently found to be made of pyrite, coming up short in an apparently predestined quest to make World Cup 2018.

Similar depression can be found in the domestic game. Declining oil prices have drained several star names away, while continued indifference and isolation make average crowds in the Arabian Gulf League remain small by most standards across the globe.

Yet holding marquee sporting events – with 2018’s competition to follow – is usually something in which the country has excelled. Optimism is not misguided about the football extravaganza ahead.

From the iconic Dubai World Cup and its $10 million bonanza for horse racing’s finest, to the glamorous Formula One circuit winding down its season in style at Yas Marina. This sense of grandeur is extended to golf and tennis, where the Race to Dubai and Dubai Duty Free Tennis tournament are among those cherished.

Will be the team to beat: Real Madrid

The team to beat: Real Madrid

Madrid are adored in the UAE, fervent fans sure to pack out each game and event they arrange once they arrive next Monday. ‘Fly Emirates’ adorns their treasured jerseys, while IPIC remain officially attached to the Bernabeu redevelopment despite reports in Spain of a split.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and the rest of their illustrious cohorts will be treated like sporting gods from the moment they set foot in the Middle East.

It is hoped that reverence is also granted to Gremio, Urawa Red Diamonds, Wydad Casablanca and Pachuca.
Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and Internazionale attracted huge crowds during both previous runnings nearly a decade ago, but large swathes of empty seats were regular sights for the best of the rest.

Organisers will be tested by such intense interest in Europe’s finest. Madrid’s last visit to Dubai in December 2014 led to ugly scenes outside The Sevens as an unexpected onslaught of fans caused about 2,000 spectators to be denied access to the friendly with AC Milan.

For a true legacy to be created, AGL holders Jazira must experience similarly exacting times. The Pride of Abu Dhabi’s Emirati contingent have missed out on an invaluable stint next summer in Russia.

For the continued development of the next generation in moustached playmaker Khalfan Mubarak, emerging full-back Mohammed Al Attas and his 22-year-old uncle Ahmed Al Attas, more exposure to elite action is invaluable.

Beat Auckland’s semi-pros, and this opportunity opens up.

Precedents for success by the domestic entrants are fresh. J1 League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima – with Al Ain’s Douglas scoring twice – finished third in 2015, while Kashima Antlers memorably pushed Madrid to extra-time in last year’s showpiece.

This is 10, rare, days in the sun for UAE football. It can’t let this chance go by.

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Real Madrid lack cutting edge in attack and other talking points from Athletic Bilbao draw

Andy West 3/12/2017
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A frustrating night for Ronaldo.

Real Madrid missed the chance to close the gap on Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table to six points following a goalless draw at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night.

Here, we look at the key talking points from the San Mamés Stadium.

NO RESPITE FOR REAL MADRID

With his team under pressure following a poor run of form, Zinedine Zidane sent out Real Madrid for Saturday’s game in Bilbao with the motivation of catching up two points on Barcelona after the leaders drew 2-2 with Celta Vigo earlier in the day. It was a great opportunity for Los Blancos to make up some lost ground, but they couldn’t take it after being held to a frustrating goalless draw.

And in truth, although they hit the post twice through Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, the point was about all they deserved. It could have been worse, in fact, with returning goalkeeper Keylor Navas making some decent saves to preserve a clean sheet.

This wasn’t a terrible performance from Zidane’s men but they should have created more clear chances considering the amount of possession they enjoyed, and the reliance upon crosses by full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal is a cause for concern. The return of Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale from injury could not come quick enough – and Zidane should also certainly consider giving more playing time to out of favour Dani Ceballos.

BILBAO, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02: (L-R) Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF, Daniel Carvajal of Real Madrid CF, Luka Modric of Real Madrid CF and Raphael Varane of Real Madrid CF looks on during the La Liga match between Athletic Club and Real Madrid at Estadio de San Mames on December 2, 2017 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

SUSPENSIONS GALORE FOR SEVILLA VISIT

The late dismissal of skipper Sergio Ramos for a pair of dubious yellow cards was not the only bad news for Zidane on the disciplinary front, with Dani Carvajal and Casemiro also picking up their fifth yellow cards of the season to earn suspensions for next weekend’s home meeting with Sevilla.

Ramos, of course, will also miss that game, which is threatening to become a real banana skin for Zidane’s men. Sevilla have hit form in recent weeks, winning their last three games, and if they can – as expected – clinch progression to the knockout stage in the Champions League in midweek, they will be heading to the Bernabeu with confidence sky-high.

Zidane will have to spend the week working out how to reshape his back four, with the most likely scenario seeing Nacho at right-back and youngster Jesus Vallejo in the middle. But it would be the first time that quartet has ever played together, and Achraf Hakimi provides another option on the right, allowing Nacho to step into the middle alongside Raphael Varane. Whatever decision he comes to, it’s a headache Zidane could do without.

BILBAO, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02: Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid CF looks on during the La Liga match between Athletic Club and Real Madrid at Estadio de San Mames on December 2, 2017 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

A familiar sight: Ramos received his marching orders.

ATHLETIC IN FALSE POSITION

One of the surprises of the La Liga campaign so far has been the struggles of Athletic Bilbao, who have finished 4th, 7th, 5th and 7th in the last four seasons but entered this weekend’s meeting with Madrid well down in 16th place, having only won three league games so far.

On the evidence they presented in San Mames on Saturday night, however, the storied Basque club won’t be down there for much longer. They fully deserved their point against the reigning champions, and could even have taken all three if battle-hardened front duo Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia had made the most of their chances.

Athletic’s current position is also skewed by the fact they were handed a particularly tough start by La Liga’s fixture computer, and they have already played against all the top six. With some more winnable contests coming up, they could well climb into the top half of the table before the winter break.

BILBAO, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02: Isco Alarcon of Real Madrid CF (C) being followed by Mikel Rico of Athletic Club (L) and Mikel San Jose of Athletic Club (R) during the La Liga match between Athletic Club and Real Madrid at Estadio de San Mames on December 2, 2017 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Bilbao are expected to climb up the table.

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