The word superstar is too loosely used today in regard to team games, but it is impossible to imagine Real Madrid getting out of the hole they had dug for themselves in the Champions Leag ue wit hout t hei r brightest t a lent, Cristiano Ronaldo. After losing the first leg in Germany, 2-0, Real Madrid had to beat Wolfsburg by three clear goals on Tuesday at Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Madrid. Ronaldo, looking like he had ESP, scored all three goals in Real’s 3-0 victory.
Madrid are a f lawed team that, like many other Real teams dating to the 1950s, rely upon exceptional individuals to win on any given night. Ronaldo is the latest continuation of that. Real needed three goals, and Ronaldo scored them. Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, superb players in their own right who cost more than $170 million combined to acquire, were the supporting cast. They played OK within the team context, but neither scored. None of Ronaldo’s goals were anywhere close to a masterpiece. The first two were a matter of being in the right place at the right time, of sensing an opportunity and then reacting to a lack of concentration by the Wolfsburg defence. (The first goal also involved a lucky break, a ricochet off a defender’s shin.) But there he was, Johnny on the spot. The decisive third goal was a free kick, but again, it was not a trademark Ronaldo strike of awesome beauty or power or timing. Ronaldo said that Real’s goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, had spoken to him just before the free kick and suggested he surprise everyone by shooting it softly for once.
Ronaldo did just that, and, uncannily, two players in the defensive wall — Naldo and Josuha Guilavogui — parted just as the ball reached them, leaving a hole that deceived their own goalkeeper. “It’s mythical, magical,” Sergio Ramos, the Madrid captain, told reporters after the game. “Cris is always important, he’s our goal scorer, our icon.
“We don’t need to f latter him any more,” Ramos concluded. “He’s a man who gives everything for the badge, and when he’s on form, the team knows it.”
That in itself defines the culture at Real Madrid. The current coach, Zinedine Zidane, was once able to conjure up majestic gamewinning shots when he was a player, including his finest goal of all, which won the 2002 Champions League final in Glasgow.
That, too, was against German opponents, Bayer Leverkusen. It was an imperious goal, a volley struck at hip height with the flawless technique of a great player.
The instinct that made him a great player may or may not make Zidane a great coach for Madrid, if he is given enough time. But can someone who has been there and done that in a similar situation be credited with knowing that the best plan Tuesday was to leave it all to Ronaldo? But, it tells nothing about Real Madrid’s strange season or their ability to advance and perhaps win an unprecedented 11th title in Europe’s top club competition.
Like the Ronaldo who came before him (the Brazilian who played in Madrid from 2002 to 2007), Cristiano is a phenomenon. But how does a coach, particularly an inexperienced one like Zidane, build a reliable team plan around one player’s extrasensory perception? The plan worked handsomely on Tuesday. Ronaldo worked it, but the effort was not entirely solo because the team’s defence, more compact in shape, was far more reliable than it was in Wolfsburg.