Cristiano Ronaldo sees Real Madrid minutes dwindle as Zidane holds firm
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane surprised almost everyone by resting Cristiano Ronaldo for his team's first game of 2017.
The recently crowned Ballon d'Or winner was left out of Wednesday's 3-0 Copa del Rey last-16 first-leg win at home to Sevilla. And Ronaldo's playing time has been a regular subject of conversation around Bernabeu in recent seasons.
The general feeling is it makes sense to rest the Portuguese from time to time, given that he'll turn 32 in February and his troublesome injury issues in recent seasons. But leaving him out has been problematic because of his desire to play every game.
Zidane appears to have stepped in where predecessors Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez feared to tread. Ronaldo was also rested for Madrid's last La Liga game of 2016, at home to Deportivo La Coruna.
This contrasts with the 2015-16 campaign, when he played 48 of Madrid's 52 games in all competitions. He missed just one match in Benitez's ill-fated six months -- the 3-1 Copa del Rey win at third-tier Cadiz.
On arrival, Zidane also seemed wary of upsetting Ronaldo, as the only three games he missed were because of injury toward the end of 2015-16. Even then, there was an attempt to force the issue, as Ronaldo flew to England only to fail a late fitness test before the Champions League semifinal first leg at Manchester City.
He was substituted only twice all season, meaning he played 4,293 minutes of the team's 4,710 over the campaign -- a rate of 91 percent.
The story was similar the season before last. With Ancelotti in charge, Ronaldo featured in 54 of Madrid's 59 games. Of the five he missed, two were due to suspension, one due to injury and the others in the early stages of the Copa del Rey. He played 87 percent of all possible minutes for Madrid over the season.
Before that, in 2013-14, the campaign was probably the worst of Ronaldo's career from a fitness perspective, with muscle problems hampering him. But he still played 30 out of 38 games in La Liga, six Copa del Rey fixtures and 12 Champions League matches. Even with Madrid often three or four goals ahead against weaker opponents, he was substituted only once all season.
"When I see Cristiano tired, I will give him a rest," Ancelotti said.
This year, with Zidane firmly in control, things look very different. Ronaldo missed the 3-2 European Super Cup win over Sevilla and the first two La Liga games because of injury post-Euro 2016.
But even since coming back to fitness, he has not always been an automatic name on the team sheet. In the first five months of the campaign, Ronaldo has been left out four times when fit and available.
When he was taken off early in September's 2-2 draw at Las Palmas, TV pictures appeared to show Ronaldo furious at Zidane's decision, although the Madrid coach played down the alleged row.
"It was not that [Ronaldo] was playing badly," the Frenchman said. "We are playing on Tuesday, and Cristiano must rest too sometimes. It was just for that. Angry? That would be your interpretation. He always wants to be on the pitch. We have to take him out sometimes, and we did today."
The incident was soon forgotten, and the petulant reaction has not been repeated in public. It seems even Ronaldo accepts he cannot play every minute. Still, it was a shock when he was left out of the squad for Wednesday's clash against Jorge Sampaoli's Sevilla, who arrived at the Bernabeu in dangerous form with one defeat in seven and three wins on the spin before the defeat.
"The players are only just back from their holidays and the next league game is against Granada at the Bernabeu, but Cristiano will be rested," AS editor Alfredo Relano wrote.
"It's mind-boggling ... Zidane won't even have him in reserve on the bench... [it] is a startlingly brave decision."
Ever the diplomat, Zidane told the postgame news conference that Ronaldo's status had not changed, and he would be back for Granada at home on Saturday.
"Of course there are some players who are more important than others -- one player can make a difference, like Cristiano always does," the coach said.
"But to win everything we want, we are going to need everyone. The season is long, and there are a lot of games. Cristiano will play on Saturday. And he will play many games. There is no need to be worried."
Ronaldo has featured in just 19 of Madrid's first 28 matches and has been substituted much more regularly than ever. He's played just 68 percent of the season so far, but his team have not missed him too badly, as they have progressed in both cup competitions and sit three points clear atop La Liga. They're also on a club-record 38-match unbeaten run.
Ronaldo's thoughts on his game time remain unclear, and he's lagging behind Barcelona's Lionel Messi in the scoring charts in both Spain and Europe.
But to many at the Bernabeu, Zidane's handling of the issue looks like masterful management.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan