Real Madrid had little to play for in Copenhagen on Tuesday night, but the notion that Carlo Ancelotti would field a weakened team in what was essentially a dead rubber was one for the Hans Christian Andersen fans in the Parken Stadion. Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the starting line up after a couple of weeks of rest and recuperation and Gareth Bale, having overcome the 'flu virus doing the rounds in Madrid, was also included, although it would have been easy enough to miss the Welshman on the field if his name hadn't been on the team sheet.
Ancelotti also had another reason not to give Copenhagen an easy ride on a chilly evening in the Danish capital -- his old club, the Old Lady, were in Istanbul attempting to secure their own passage to the knock-out stages. It is a small consideration for the manager of Real Madrid, but had the result gone against Real, and Galatasaray had got the better of Juventus, the Italian champions would not even have had the cold comfort of Europa League football to look forward after the thaw. As it transpired, Copenhagen were beaten 2-0 and the Italian and Turkish combatants will have to play their decisive match another day after a snow storm in Istanbul that made the evening in Denmark appear positively balmy.
Real lined up with what must be close to the ever-tinkering Ancelotti's best current makeshift 11: Nacho came in for the suspended Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric partnered Xabi Alonso, with Isco tucking in behind the front three of Ronaldo, Bale and Karim Benzema. The front four went about their business as they tend to do, latching onto quick attacks and testing Copenhagen's resolve with some neat interchanges. The home side, which has a phenomenal record at the Parken Stadion in the Champions League, gleaning their four points this season at the expense of both Galatasaray and Juventus, while denying sides such as Barcelona and Manchester United in previous years, set up to maintain that proud record. Isco, the neatest exponent of close control Real Madrid possesses, tried to find the combination to Copenhagen's safe but it was Modric who cracked the defence with a wonderful first-half goal.
The Croatian playmaker is rapidly becoming one of the Real Madrid's key components. Alonso was targeted for special treatment by Copenhagen's designated harriers Igor Vetokele and Youssef Toutouh, rarely being afforded enough time to control the pace of the match and as often as not being bundled to the turf. But with Modric alongside, the back four was rarely exposed and, on the occasions they were, the number 19 was on hand to cover. Nacho also acquitted himself well in partnership with Pepe, permitting Marcelo and Alvaro Arbeloa -- who was afforded the freedom of Copenhagen by the home side -- to get forward.
Not that Copenhagen posed no threat. Belgium under-21 forward Vetokele in particular ran the back four ragged with his rubber-limbed runs, twisting this way and that, and quite possibly pirouetting his way into the thoughts of national team coach Marc Wilmots on this evidence. Christian Bolanos also pulled out his full array of tricks, but an end product of one shot on target -- and one goal shot down for a foul on Iker Casillas -- summed up the end product of Copenhagen's huffing and puffing.
In the end, the night was set up for another bedtime story Ronaldo can regale Cristiano Jr with at a later date: The Portuguese fired in Real's second to become the first player in the competition's history to bag nine goals in the group phase.
That Zlatan Ibrahimovic was given the night off in PSG's 2-1 loss at Benfica -- the Sweden striker had also scored eight going into this round of fixturesd -- should take nothing away from Ronaldo's achievement. It will probably be a while before anyone manages the feat again, and when someone does, it will be in a weaker group than this. The Portuguese's tally should have risen to 10 when he won a penalty in the final minutes, only to inexplicably attempt a half-Panenka that Johan Wiland clawed away with his trailing hand. Asked after the match if Real's players had basically tried to tee up Ronaldo for the decisive strike, Arbeloa was refreshingly open for a modern-day footballer -- as he often is in fairness -- in replying: "Of course we did. But then, we usually do that anyway."
Consider that Ronaldo only failed to score in one match in the group stage -- the 4-1 win against Galatasaray that he didn't feature in -- and as much as I hesitate to utter the words in my almost pathological dislike of the increasingly pointless FIFA gong; surely that's enough for the Portuguese's first Ballon d'Or of his Real Madrid career?