Rested Cristiano Ronaldo hitting form at the perfect time for Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo is currently having the best end to a season in his entire career. Manager Zinedine Zidane's rotation policy has kept Real Madrid's main man fit and fresh at exactly the right time.
In recent years, Ronaldo has often reached the final stages of the campaign hampered by fitness issues. His limited influence in open play during the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals was ultimately not so important given he ended up celebrating a vital late contribution, but his inability to hit top form in the La Liga run-in has arguably led to Madrid going four years without lifting the trophy.
Things look very different this year, as Ronaldo has accelerated just when needed most. The 13 goals in his last eight outings have included key strikes to see off both Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in Europe, then back-to-back match-winning performances domestically.
Speaking after his double strike in Wednesday's 4-1 La Liga win at Celta Vigo, which means a draw in the final game at Malaga on Sunday will secure the title, Ronaldo accepted that he had benefitted from sitting out the team's previous four La Liga away trips.
"I have rested a bit more this year, to be good at the end of the season," he said. "It has gone well, this is when things are decided. I am helping the team with goals at the moment. So I am happy."
Right from the start of this season, Zidane has carefully managed Ronaldo's playing time, leaving him out four times during the first five months of the campaign when he was fit and available.
Zidane has done what predecessors Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez felt unable to do, and a look back at previous years shows how well that has gone for all involved.
Ronaldo reached the end of the campaign seriously hampered by knee and thigh injuries. He did not play at all between the Champions League quarterfinals and semis, missing Madrid's Copa del Rey final victory over Barcelona. More importantly he substituted himself in a La Liga game where Madrid drew 2-2 at Valladolid, and then sat out completely as they lost 2-0 at Celta.
Even though he returned to score in extra-time to defeat Atletico in the Champions League final in Lisbon, those late points dropped in winnable games in La Liga arguably cost Madrid the Treble as city rivals Atletico finished three points clear.
The following year Ronaldo was injury free late on in the season, but could have done little more individually. He scored in both Champions League semifinal legs against Juventus, although Madrid lost 3-2 on aggregate.
There was also three hat tricks in the last four La Liga games to secure the Pichichi top scorer prize with 48 in total, although a penalty miss in a 2-2 draw at home to Valencia contributed to Barcelona being able to secure the title by two points.
Last season again brought fitness issues through the crucial stage of the campaign. A familiar-looking thigh injury picked up late in a 3-0 win over Villarreal saw him miss a couple of La Liga games, during which Gareth Bale stepped up as the team's main match-winner.
In Europe, Ronaldo travelled with the squad for their semifinal first leg at Manchester City, but was unable to feature in the game. He played in the return against City although clearly not 100 percent fit, and was then substituted by Zidane in both Madrid's final two Liga matches as Barca again took the trophy by a point.
Once more he was controlled well by Atletico's defence during the Champions League final in Milan, although he was able to convert the decisive penalty in the shootout as Diego Simeone's men were again defeated.
This season began late for the Portugal captain following an extended recovery from the knee problem suffered the Euro 2016 final. He has been more or less completely injury free since then however, and most importantly has been physically and mentally in spectacular shape.
After his hat trick at home to Atletico in last month's Champions League semifinal first leg, Zidane said the decision to rest sometimes had been mutually taken between player and coach.
"It is important [that he has rested] and he knows that he must rest sometimes too," he said. "It is also an accumulation of all the years. He knows that as he is intelligent."
With three games remaining of 2016-17, the 32-year-old has played 3,946 minutes in total. He is set to finish below the 4,293 of last year, but will be way off his personal record of 4,901 in 2010-11.
Missing out on potential turkey-shoots such as the recent visit to already relegated Granada means Ronaldo lost any chance of catching Lionel Messi in this year's Pichichi race, but the rest has set him up nicely for what should be a second league trophy of his eight years in Spain.
Madrid are two games away (against Malaga and Juventus) from what would be their first La Liga/European Cup double since 1958. The squad are well aware of how they have got into this position and Isco was asked after the win over Celta on Wednesday night about their connection.
"It is very easy to understand what to do with Cristiano," he said. "You just pass him the ball close to the area, and he takes care of the rest. He has reached the end of the season flying."
The difference from previous years is clear. Both Zidane and Ronaldo deserve a lot of credit for realising what was required. And, with Real's No. 7 looking fresh and in form, it will be hard to stop him from finishing the job.
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