Barcelona fans shared a joke earlier in the season at Cristiano Ronaldo’s expense. In a photo montage passed between supporters, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are being interviewed together and when the Real Madrid player tells the interviewer: “God told me I was put on earth to entertain people,” Messi replies: “I told him nothing of the sort.”
The two best players in the world have scored more than 100 goals between them this season, and neither deserved to be part of last week’s Champions League abomination. But while Messi was the god who restored everyone’s faith in football, Ronaldo was again the mere mortal — a man who, barring a miracle tonight, will have to watch his nemesis face Manchester United in the Champions League final.
Listening to the Jose Mourinho apologists last week — and there were some — it would have been easy to believe the semi-final first leg had actually been an FA Cup fifth round tie in which he had led a group of part-timers to within minutes of a famous goalless draw.
Plucky little Madrid and their £400m squad had done their best to bully Barcelona out of their stride. Mourinho’s tactics were justified, his supporters said, because “no one can compete with Barca”.
Ronaldo’s heart must sink every time he hears such talk — everytime someone says: “Of course Mourinho wouldn’t play like this if he was Barcelona coach with Messi at his disposal.”
Behind that image of Madrid’s 51-goal forward turning to his team-mates in the first half and protesting at their reluctance to cross the halfway line to pressure Barcelona defenders, lies an uncomfortable truth — they were probably carrying out orders; he probably wasn’t.
That, and the revealing post match admission that he did not like the tactics but felt he had to adapt to them, contributed to Ronaldo’s omission from the weekend's league match against lowly Zaragoza.
And as he canoodled in the stands with his girlfriend Irina Shayk, Madrid capitulated without him — they have lost two home games this season and on both occasions Mourinho decided to rest his talisman.
Tonight he starts and unless there is a repeat of the curious tactic of waiting until the last 20 minutes to attack — the botched masterplan from the first leg — then Ronaldo will be back in a four-man forward line going for goals.
Whatever happens tonight Ronaldo’s second season at Real has been an improvement on his first. When the dust settles from the campaign’s five clasicos he can take heart in the towering header in extra-time that won the Spanish Cup for Madrid, his first trophy since joining. And the relationship with his manager has been for the most part good. Players love Mourinho more than anything because they win medals with him and true to form the coach who has been winning at least one trophy a season since
2003 has delivered. But Ronaldo will also take a certain frustration with him if tonight’s game follows the pattern of the first leg.
“I would like the chance to play against 10 men,” he snapped when asked about Messi’s goal last week.
What he stopped short of saying, but hinted at when he said he had not liked the team’s negative tactics, was that he would also like to play in a side that throws the same caution to the wind as Barcelona.
Those defending Mourinho after the first leg claimed he could not possibly have gone toe-to-toe with Barca as it would have resulted in the same 5-0 scoreline his team suffered last November.
The final chapter appears to have already been written. Ronaldo has 90 minutes to rewrite it. But he will need a helping hand from a manager who believes that Barcelona can been beaten by just playing football.