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Aug 28, 2009

Ronaldo runs into pressure

Being the most expensive signing ever in the football world means the expectation around Cristiano Ronaldo is bigger than ever. As La Liga fires up, it is time for the Portuguese to prove his worth in the most demanding league in world football.

Every summer, at least one star heads to La Liga, a signing that makes the front pages of all four sports papers in Spain either because of the player's talent but mostly because of the amount of money invested in him. That has been the case with Zinedine Zidane, Sergio Agüero and Thierry Henry for instance; some of them find their feet in La Liga easily, but some need time to earn the much-longed for praise from the journalism experts.

This year, it is down to Cristiano Ronaldo. Competing with other summer stars Kakà, Benzema and Ibrahimovic, the £80m Real Madrid dished out to Manchester United has increased the pressure on the brand-new arrival. After two years of rumours about his move to Real, the expectation peaked on July 6 when the club staged a massive presentation gala at the Santiago Bernabéu. 80,000 fans packed the stands and, unavoidably, ended up invading the pitch before a bewildered Ronaldo.

The power of his popularity clearly shocked the Portuguese, despite him being more than used to stardom, and the club quickly assigned him two personal bodyguards to fight off eager fans wherever he went.

The Ballon d'Or, Golden Boot and FIFA World Player of the Year prizes are a reflection of the quality of the forward, enough to vouch for a successful future in Spain, but Cristiano is yet to fully impress with his new team.

After nine friendly matches during the summer, Ronaldo is the player to have featured most for Manuel Pellegrini's new squad but 603 minutes and three goals, two from the penalty spot, do not seem enough for the demanding fans. Whereas Kakà and Benzema received approval from the specialised press, the Portuguese international has convinced neither fans nor journalists.

'Cristiano Ronaldo is still far from being the player that was the most expensive transfer ever', read Sport, and 'Cristiano doesn't feel comfortable' in Marca reflected the general feeling in Spain before the start of the season. Without being explicitly critical, the fans are still waiting to see the best of the former Manchester United player.

"I'm improving and I think I'm ready to start the season off. I feel comfortable and we are working bit by bit to improve our performance. I have nothing to prove to anyone, which means I feel quite relaxed," said the attacking-midfielder after the team's official presentation match against Rosenborg on August 25 at the Bernabéu, which ended 4-0 to the hosts.

Coach Manuel Pellegrini asked for a little patience, saying that "all the players are trying to reach their fitness peak. Cristiano is experiencing a change of style and adapting to a new country and that usually takes a bit more time than for those who already know the Spanish league".

In any case, the honeymoon period is over. Real Madrid need to start proving that the millions invested during the summer will bring an end to Barcelona's reign and if Cristiano's pre-season performance has brought on a touch of pressure, it will not compare to what it will be like during the official campaign.

But then, in all fairness, three weeks of training sessions and low-key matches does not seem enough to judge him.

It took Thierry Henry quite a long time to adapt to a new style of playing at Barcelona before he convinced the fans of his quality. Months of criticism and unfortunate injuries cast a long shadow of doubt over the Frenchman before he proved the press wrong. And Zidane at Real Madrid, under the similar circumstances of being the most expensive signing ever, admitted to feeling under pressure in the Spanish capital.

Whether Cristiano may be under the influence of the "Zidane Syndrome", as Marca puts it, comparisons with his team-mates, with how Manchester United will do without him and with rival Leo Messi at Barcelona, could become heavy burdens for the 24-year-old. If his football falters, the mental strength to rally through a possible storm of criticism will be required.

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