Ronaldo is no superman but he's turning up in big games more than ever
You're the manager of a team that is chasing its first league and cup double in 59 years, there are only six games left, and this weekend you have to win. Every weekend you have to win, in fact. Every midweek, too. You're playing away from home, chasing the title that has evaded the club for five years, the longest drought in two decades, and there is no margin for error. So, what do you do? You leave out your top scorer, the man who has scored nine times in his past five games, of course.
You leave out your top scorer again and again, picking a team without him every other week. You don't just leave him out of the team, you leave him out of the squad: not on the plane, let alone the pitch. You leave out the man who has scored more than 30 goals a season every season for eight years and who has more than twice as many as your other first-choice forwards; the man who has scored eight times in three Champions League games -- against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, for goodness' sake.
No, on the face of it, it doesn't make much sense. But here's the thing: it is working for you and your team. Actually, no, wait; that's not the thing. This is the thing: it is working for him, too.
Zinedine Zidane will name his squad for Real Madrid's visit to Granada on Saturday and Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored his 400th goal for the club in midweek, is not expected to be included in it. If he doesn't travel to Los Cármenes, it would be the fourth away game in a row in which he has not been included, the fifth time in the past six. "I talk to him a lot," Zidane said. "I know that at times players have to rest." Ronaldo, especially.
This season, Ronaldo is resting more than ever before. Eight times he has not started in the league. Compare that to this time last campaign when he was chasing another record: having played every minute of the league season. Across all competitions, on May 3 last year, he had played almost 300 minutes more than this season. On May 3 the season before, the total was almost 300 higher than that. As a percentage, this campaign Ronaldo has played 81 percent of the minutes; last year, it was nudging 90 percent.
And the thing is, those stats do not really express just how much of a shift there has been. They underline a trend, but they're not especially remarkable. Yet what has happened lately is significant. This is the first season that Ronaldo has really sat out because the manager has rotated him -- rather than through injury, his absences enforced. In 2012-13, when the figures were similar, only one of the 11 he missed was a coach's decision. And look at the games it is: they are always away. Ronaldo's breaks have been complete breaks: no sitting on the bench, no planes, no hotels, no cooped-up concentración. He has rested physically, and mentally too.
At his age -- Ronaldo turned 30 in Feb. 2015 -- it is sensible enough, of course, and it helps that Madrid have so much strength in depth that they can afford to do so. But that doesn't necessarily make it easy. Or any less significant.
Late last season, Zidane was asked if he would prefer Ronaldo to rest more often. He smiled a little timidly and said, simply: "Yes." The response implied a kind of "but you try telling him that." He said yes, but he didn't do it. This season, he has. Even this season, when he took Ronaldo off early in Las Palmas, admitting that he had done so with an eye on the next game, the Portugal star headed to the bench unhappy. Without him, Madrid conceded a late equaliser. That was all Zidane needed. But the manager, who experienced the final years leading up to retirement as a player and understood the importance of physical management, has convinced him to take a step back.
You don't need to play every game, you need to play the big games. Don't worry about the goals: concern yourself with their quality, not their quantity.
Zidane has protected Ronaldo and Ronaldo has let him. His own evolution has contributed. His agent Jorge Mendes once claimed that Ronaldo would still be there, standing in the middle and nodding in goals when he is 40, and while that is an exaggeration, there's something in that idea. He is no longer covering the distances that he once did, becoming the No. 9 that he always had within him (of his 104 Champions League goals, 77 are finished with a single touch), positioning taking priority over pace. He may not dominate games, but he is still deciding them.
"It's down to him; he is intelligent," Zidane insists. Ronaldo has seen the value in a shift to prolong his career. Perhaps a glimpse of his footballing mortality helped, heading past 30. Perhaps the second European Cup with Madrid did, too. Winning the European Championships surely had a part to play: that can be seen as a watershed, a moment that it is natural to imagine changed him. He looks a little lighter -- reports suggested that he had lost three kilos -- and more agile. His energy is applied in smaller doses, more efficiently.
After he won the Ballon d'Or, Ronaldo told France Football: "With age, we all lose things, although you gain others. You are to be intelligent because this is a marathon. I have to recognise that I am 31 years old and I have to manage games very well, in the sense of not playing them all."
It was the first admission that he needed to administer his efforts, that he was not some superman who could play every minute of every game, season after season. After his previous Ballon d'Or he had insisted that he still felt young, but now he recognised that he could not play 60 games season -- and that, who knows, if he played fewer games, he might play more seasons. Above all, he might play more of the big games. And that he might play them better. There was no need to fly through September or rack up goals against weaker teams.
"I prepared well to be in good shape in the final stages of the competition," he said this week. Look back on recent years and that has not always been the case. In fact, it almost always has not been the case. Ronaldo has been struggling towards the finish line, exhausted. In 2014, he missed the Copa del Rey final and had relatively little impact in the Champions League final in Lisbon. In 2016, he missed the first leg of the semifinal against Manchester City and wasn't at his best physically in Milan.
After the final at San Siro he admitted, entirely unprompted, that he wished he could have contributed more to what was still a huge success: "My performance may not have been my best one, but who played unbelievable tonight? No one." He said he was "very tired," and accepted that his influence had been limited. He had still finished as the competition's top scorer for the fourth year in a row, and said he'd had a "vision" that he would score the winning penalty. His celebration was still the image of their success.
This season began injured which may, with the benefit of hindsight, have proven a good thing. What certainly was a good thing was the recognition of the management needed; the rest. Although his seriousness, dedication and work were never in doubt, it was tempting to wonder if his relentless could end up rebounding against him. At the start of this season, it was legitimate to ask if he was on the way down, if, at 32, his career was coming to a close. Now, the idea appears absurd, his retirement postponed until further notice.
Until Christmas, this was not a good season for Ronaldo, but the work was there, the planning, the preparation, the care taken, and from late January, he appeared to be accelerating. Now he has hit top speed, heading into the home straight. Most years have seen him slow as the campaign came towards a close; this year has been the opposite. And when the moment came, there he was.
He only scores goals, people say.
First of all: Only?!
Secondly: the totals are still astonishing -- "madness, genuinely outrageous," Sergio Ramos said -- and, besides, what really stands out this season is which goals he has scored, when he got them. No, he hasn't dominated every big game. No, his influence has not always been enormous, but just look at the past three weeks. The accusation that he didn't appear on the big occasions was always a bit of a myth -- the winning goal in the Copa del Rey final, the goal that clinched the only league title they have won in five years, two in Munich on the road to Lisbon -- and now it looks more misplaced than before.
Ronaldo scored against Sporting CP on Sept. 14 and against Borussia Dortmund a fortnight later. And that was that. He didn't score again in the Champions League. Six months passed, and nothing. Then the semifinal came. He scored five against Bayern Munich and three against Atletico Madrid to virtually guarantee that Real Madrid will be in the final. Ronaldo probably won't be there in Granada on Saturday night, but he will be there in Cardiff, and fully fit too.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.