Cristiano Ronaldo now Real Madrid team leader
To say he left a boy and comes back a man would be a gross exaggeration – Cristiano Ronaldo was already capable of carrying a team when he left Manchester United.
But, as he returns to Old Trafford tomorrow for the first time since he left in 2009, one transition is more evident than ever – the soloist prone to self-indulgence has become not just a team man but a leader of men.
In Saturday's La Liga win over Barcelona, the Real Madrid team seemed to stand taller and run faster from the minute Ronaldo stripped for action in the home dugout and began tying the laces on those luminous cerise boots in which he has thundered home his 39 goals this season.
With the score at 1-1 and the clasico-lite sliding toward stalemate, he lifted the Bernabeu and literally told his team-mates that victory was there for the taking, running straight to young striker Alvaro Morata to issue tactical orders and encouragement.
The 20-year-old forward said after the game: "Cristiano said to me that he was going to play through the middle and that I should keep looking for space out wide and to be strong because we had to win the match."
Morata responded with an excellent last 30 minutes. He was put through by Pepe only to lose the one-on-one duel with goalkeeper Victor Valdes, but with Ronaldo by his side Barcelona were squeezed on to the back foot in a last half-hour that could otherwise easily have been played out at a pedestrian pace with both teams settling for a point.
In that final period Ronaldo was back in the old centre-forward territory he once occupied for United. It remains an option for Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, although the resting of Gonzalo Higuain suggests the Argentine will start tomorrow. Ronaldo immediately drew a foul from Gerard Pique and, though he wasted the free-kick, he went closer with his next effort that Valdes punched away, and closer still with his third that bounced back off the bar. But it was the effect he had on the team more than the six shots he managed in his second-half cameo that really drew the attention. Captain Sergio Ramos headed in the winner but Cristiano – as everyone at Madrid calls him to differentiate him from the "original" Ronaldo – had been the catalyst for the late cavalry charge.
As sticklers for tradition, Real Madrid are a club where a player needs to be the longest-serving on the pitch to wear the armband. They broke with that tradition earlier this season when Ronaldo continued as captain despite Iker Casillas – who has been recalled to the squad to face United after his hand injury – having come on as a substitute.
Ramos is set for a long innings at the heart of Madrid's defence, especially now he has found his perfect partner in the never-flustered Raphaël Varane, who has been immaculate in three games against United and Barça, conceding just one foul – and that for what looked a perfectly legal challenge on Pedro on Saturday.
Varane makes Ramos a better player and the armband will be staying with the Andalusian defender. But as Pepe, Marcelo and Casillas have lost first-team places Ronaldo has moved up the line of succession. He will wear the armband again and his team-mates are in increasing agreement that he wears it well.
A dressing-room row with Mourinho after a cup first-leg game with Valencia further demonstrated that there is no special treatment from the special one. Neither are their futures inextricably linked. If Mourinho goes that won't necessarily mean Ronaldo will follow.
Comments earlier in the season about being "sad" at Real Madrid were put down to him being unhappy at not being the world's highest-paid player. Financial concerns will have been a factor – for a star of the Jorge Mendes stable to have been at the same club for three and half years without the offer of an improved deal is tantamount to working pro bono – but there was also some truth in claims this gripe was about other things. Ronaldo felt disrespected when he went to the European Footballer of the Year presentation last year accompanied only by Emilio Butragueno and a low-ranking club director, while Barcelona's players went with their president, Sandro Rosell. In contrast, at the Ballon D'Or ceremony in January the whole troop turned out and the president, Florentino Perez, led the entourage.
More love has come Ronaldo's way since the turn of the year both from the boardroom and the Bernabeu. He has scored 16 times so far in 2013, looking sharper than ever and with a gravitas on the pitch that comes not just from his goals but from the dressing room's acceptance of his importance.
None of this has moved a new contract any closer. There will be a meeting at the end of the season – or before, if Madrid are eliminated from the Champions League. Ronaldo will take to the table an interest from clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. Real Madrid come armed with the idea that if Ronaldo goes Gareth Bale would be a ready-made replacement.
But it remains difficult for any Madrid fan to believe the Tottenham player could leave Lionel Messi in his shadow as Ronaldo has done in the last week. Since Ronaldo has been at Madrid, Messi has scored 12 goals in clasicos; Ronaldo also has 12 and they have been important ones.
The first goal he scored in the cup last Tuesday broke Barcelona's resistance and made him the first player to score in six away meetings with the old enemy. Long gone are accusations that he cannot perform in the most important games. Gone too is the belief that in order to perform he always has to be the goalscoring hero.
The old Ronaldo who could leave the pitch a European Cup winner but still be in tears because he had missed his penalty is gone. On Saturday he didn't score – the 40th goal of the season in all competitions is still pending ahead of the visit to Old Trafford – but there was satisfaction at a job well done… and a team well led.
Belfast Telegraph Digital