Battling for Ronaldo’s soul

Real Madrid play host to Manchester United in the first encounter between the two sides since Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Madrid from Manchester in 2009.

cristiano ronaldo
Suhas Bhat

By Suhas Bhat

It's the game so many of us have been waiting for. 

The prodigal son will face his mentor. A would-be successor to Sir Alex Ferguson will make his case. Two clubs, widely considered as the world's most popular sporting franchises, will square off and only one will get to carry on their European journey. 

The main story, of course, will be Ronaldo. The Portuguese star has always held a soft spot for the Manchester giants even after completing a record-breaking move to Real. 

On a personal note, Ronaldo has surpassed even his glorious achievements at Old Trafford during his three years at the Bernabeu. Yet, there are signs he is not entirely enjoying himself in Madrid. Late last year, he even declared that he was ‘unhappy'- the reason behind the uncharacteristic display of emotion by the forward remains a mystery but he has denied any financial considerations. 

In the aftermath of that 3-0 win over Granada, both club and player quickly moved to quell any speculation that he wanted to move away from Los Blancos. 

It is a fact, though, that this season has been the toughest one he has had to endure at Madrid as, despite starring with 36 goals, he has seen his side fall 16 points behind Barcelona in the La Liga title race. Moreover, Madrid were not impressive in the Champions League group stages - a second place finish that stung even more thanks to a chastening defeat at the hands of Borussia Dortmund. 

Reports of internal strife last month over the dropping of goalkeeper Iker Casillas from the starting eleven wouldn't have helped either. Neither does it help that Ronaldo, clearly one of the best players on the planet, was also snubbed for the FIFA Ballon d'Or, bested once more by Barca's Lionel Messi. 

In contrast, anyone would envy the success that United have achieved in the Premier League this season and the unity in the squad that has made the success possible. Led by Robin van Persie, the Red Devils have a 12-point advantage over Manchester City in the league and look a dangerous unit capable of dismantling any defence in Europe. 

United have also made no bones about their desire to re-sign Ronaldo in the future. He remains, arguably, the most famous player from the past decade to have donned their famous red jersey and led them to their last Champions League win in 2008. Since then, they have been twice denied by Barcelona, the same club because of which Ronaldo has only three trophies to show for his four seasons in Madrid. 

A return to England this year seems far-fetched but the Premier League leaders are prepared to play the waiting game. Denying Ronaldo a chance of helping the club achieve the ‘Decima' - a record tenth Champions League win - would definitely fit into that plan. 

To add to the mix, Jose Mourinho's future at the La Liga side is not assured either. 

Ronaldo told AS just last week: "I don't know [if Mourinho will stay]. I think he will continue until the end of the season at least, because he's a coach who always wants to win and we have several challenges ahead which we can achieve.

"After that he will decide what's best for him, for his professional group and for the club. But I don't know what either he or the club thinks and therefore I prefer not to talk about this subject."

The ex-Chelsea coach has always been open about his desire to return to the Premier League and many pundits have tipped him to take up the United post whenever Ferguson does decide to call it a day. 

United can definitely increase their attractiveness in the Portuguese's eyes by eliminating his side from the competition. 

Securing a vital away win at the Santiago Bernabeu, intimidating as the prospect may be, on Wednesday night would be an emphatic first step. The omens are good for Ferguson's men.

Real are without captain Iker Casillas, who suffered an injury against Valencia in a Copa del Rey tie last month, and deputy custodian Antonio Adan has been poor in the Spain international's absence. This prompted the knee-jerk signing of Diego Lopez but the ex-Sevilla goalkeeper has limited Champions League experience. 

Moreover, the form of Angel di Maria, Luka Modric, Kaka and many others has been below-par this season, especially when compared to their sensational showing last year when Real romped to the La Liga title in record-breaking fashion. 

United, on the other hand, have seen Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and even Javier Hernandez rise to the fore this season alongside the mercurial Van Persie. 

Such has been the excellence of the United frontline, Ferguson has even issued a 25-goal challenge to ensure his players continue to stretch beyond their limits. 

He told The Sun before the match against Everton on Sunday: "If I can get Van Persie, Hernandez and Rooney on 25 goals it will get us in the ball-park position for honours." 

"The way they are going, the signs are good. Chicho has 14, Wayne has 13, Robin 22." Van Persie went on to net a goal and also assisted Giggs in United's 2-0 win over the Toffees. 

Having said that, Real are no pushovers and know that winning the Champions League could save their season and go some way towards justifying the largesse demonstrated by president Florentino Perez in procuring Ronaldo, Kaka, Ozil, Di Maria and many other players for mammoth sums. 

United, marvellous though they have been up front, do have some vulnerabilities at the back. Whether or not the likes of Rafael, who was infamously sent off against Bayern Munich in the quarter-final three years ago, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones can hold their own against one of the most lethal frontlines in world football, could well decide the tie.

Tactically, Mourinho is a shrewd operative who has come to appreciate and understand the Scotsman's wiles, having repeatedly locked horns with the older manager during his time as Blues manager. Moreover, the fact that Real have not lost at home since January last year demonstrates that even an under-pressure Mourinho is a force to be reckoned with.

And then there's Ronaldo. 

He's scored against Barcelona, AC Milan, Roma, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool in his career. Until now, though, he's never found the need to beat Rio Ferdinand or Rooney and send United packing out of any competition. 

And despite all his outspoken passion for the Red Devils, the consummate professional that is Ronaldo will rise to the challenge. After all, it was Ferguson who made him realise that no defence is impenetrable, helping create one of the deadliest forwards in the modern era.

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