| 1.9°C Dublin

Ronaldo to grace his Old stomping ground as the true leader of Spanish champions

Close

Barcelona's Lionel Messi look on as Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during their Spanish first division "classic" match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, March 2, 2013.  REUTERS/Paul Hanna  (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)

Barcelona's Lionel Messi look on as Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during their Spanish first division "classic" match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, March 2, 2013. REUTERS/Paul Hanna (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)

REUTERS

Barcelona's Lionel Messi look on as Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during their Spanish first division "classic" match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, March 2, 2013. REUTERS/Paul Hanna (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)

TO say he left a boy and comes back a man would be a gross exaggeration – Cristiano Ronaldo was already capable of carrying a team when he left Manchester United.

But, as he returns to Old Trafford tomorrow for the first time since he left in 2009, one transition is more evident than ever – the soloist prone to self-indulgence has become not just a team man but a leader of men.

In Saturday's La Liga win over Barcelona, the Real Madrid team seemed to stand taller and run faster from the minute Ronaldo stripped for action in the home dugout and began tying the laces on those luminous cerise boots in which he has thundered home his 39 goals this season.

With the score at 1-1 and the Clasico-lite sliding toward stalemate, he lifted the Santiago Bernabeu and literally told his team-mates that victory was there for the taking, running straight to young striker Alvaro Morata to issue tactical orders and encouragement.

The 20-year-old forward said after the game: "Cristiano said to me that he was going to play through the middle and that I should keep looking for space out wide and to be strong because we had to win the match."

Morata responded with an excellent last 30 minutes.

He was put through by Pepe only to lose the one-on-one duel with goalkeeper Victor Valdes, but with Ronaldo by his side Barcelona were squeezed on to the back foot in a last half-hour that could otherwise easily have been played out at a pedestrian pace with both teams settling for a point.

In that final period Ronaldo was back in the old centre-forward territory he once occupied for United.

It remains an option for Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, although the resting of Gonzalo Higuain suggests the Argentine will start tomorrow.

Ronaldo immediately drew a foul from Gerard Pique and, though he wasted the free-kick, he went closer with his next effort that Valdes punched away, and closer still with his third that bounced back off the bar.

But it was the effect he had on the team more than the six shots he managed in his second-half cameo that really drew the attention.

Captain Sergio Ramos headed in the winner but Cristiano – as everyone at Madrid calls him to differentiate him from the "original" Ronaldo – had been the catalyst for the late cavalry charge.

As sticklers for tradition, Real Madrid are a club where a player needs to be the longest-serving on the pitch to wear the armband.

They broke with that tradition earlier this season when Ronaldo continued as captain despite Iker Casillas having come on as a substitute.

Ramos is set for a long innings at the heart of Madrid's defence, especially now he has found his perfect partner in the never-flustered Raphael Varane.

Varane makes Ramos a better player and the armband will be staying with the Andalusian defender. But as Pepe, Marcelo and Casillas have lost first-team places Ronaldo has moved up the line of succession. He will wear the armband again and his team-mates are in increasing agreement that he wears it well.

A dressing-room row with Mourinho after a cup first-leg game with Valencia further demonstrated that there is no special treatment from the special one. Neither are their futures inextricably linked. If Mourinho goes that won't necessarily mean Ronaldo will follow.

Long gone are accusations that he cannot perform in the most important games. Gone too is the belief that in order to perform he always has to be the goalscoring hero.

The old Ronaldo who could leave the pitch a European Cup winner but still be in tears because he had missed his penalty is gone. On Saturday he didn't score – the 40th goal of the season in all competitions is still pending ahead of the visit to Old Trafford – but there was satisfaction at a job well done ... and a team well led.


Privacy