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Friday, 17 September 2010

The Reinvention of Ronaldo?

If you had a checklist of 'allegations levelled at Cristiano Ronaldo' (in a football sense), you'd normally be able to put a tick next to each one over the course of 90 minutes. Preening? Check. Too many stepovers? Check. Free-kicks? Check. Outrageous (and pointless) long-range shooting? Check. Other, more complimentary attributes (pace, aerial prowess, goalscoring record) are also identifiable more often than not.

Not against Ajax though. Even the favourite slight of his most fervent detractors, that of the Portuguese as a flat-track bully, seemed some way off the mark. Ronaldo wasn't necessarily bad against Ajax – he linked well as part of the triumvirate behind Gonzalo Higuain – but he was different somehow. Identity crisis, or the hand of Jose Mourinho?

What is Cristiano Ronaldo (again, footballing answers only please)? Not a winger anymore, that's for sure. Not a centre forward, either. Not a playmaker – that's Ozil, or Kaka when fit. The man himself doesn't even really seem to know. Portugal and Real might have built their teams around him in the last 18 months, but it seems to have turned him into a caricature of the player that was truly outstanding at Old Trafford. The title of 'best player of the world' certainly isn't shared anymore.

By the end of his first year at Madrid, Ronaldo cut a figure frustrated and frustrating in equal measure. He looked like a man who’d ended up listening to ‘Winds of Change’ by the Scorpions when all he really wanted was some Bachman Turner Overdrive. Another staggering goal return (33 in 35), but shooting from increasingly bloody ridiculous distances. Records broken, but no reward. Perhaps it was even better manifest at the World Cup. Knowing you're the focal point is all well and good. Working out what to do once you've become so important is a different thing altogether. Ronaldo didn't look like he was enjoying the World Cup, not one bit in fact. He hasn't looked happy in the matches he's played (albeit just two of them) for Real this season. The Mourinho era is taking a bit of getting used to so far.

It could be Ronaldo's sulking because the chances aren't going in. He's also coming back from an ankle injury. He always believes, sometimes with good reason, that he is the put-upon victim on the football pitch. But it could also be that Mourinho doesn't tend to entertain the idea of one of the forwards enjoying a 'free role', and certainly not that a player aged only 25 be allowed to consider himself its permanent incumbent. Much was made of Mourinho playing Karim Benzema out wide against Osasuna – particularly given the Real manager's success with Samuel Eto'o in the same role – and it could be that he is working on eliciting similar change from Ronaldo.

I've seen Ronaldo in wide areas for Madrid before, obviously, but never on the touchline with such frequency as recently. He's not a player you can tuck into midfield like Eto'o, but he was devastating from those areas for United and with the guile of Ozil – who has eclipsed him so far this season – he could be rejuvenated, identity rediscovered. Unusually, his link-up play was the most impressive part of his game against Ajax, interspersed as it was with poor first touches and eight or nine missed opportunities. A guiding hand is what he needs now – a defined role. Perhaps a reinvention isn't far away. Rob MacDonald

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