Friday, 29 April 2016

Gareth Bale can lead Real Madrid if Cristiano Ronaldo misses much time

FC's Gab Marcotti shares the latest on Cristiano Ronaldo's thigh injury and how the scoreless draw was received in England.

After a season full of highs and lows, Real Madrid enter the final two weeks of the term with real chances of lifting two trophies. However, they will have to fight for them while harbouring serious doubts about the shape of their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo.
As the first leg of their Champions League semifinal match against Manchester City kicked off, it became obvious that the pre-match statements from manager Zinedine Zidane regarding both Ronaldo's and Karim Benzema's shape were simply a bluff. The "in perfect shape" Portuguese striker didn't even make the bench, while the "phenomenally recuperated" Benzema wandered around the pitch for 45 painful-to-watch minutes, only to be replaced at halftime.
On Wednesday, as the news about the result ran its course, the Madrid media started to show genuine concern about the extent of Ronaldo's injury. Eventually, Radio Marca -- the channel that broke the news that the Portuguese star would not play in Manchester -- stated that the problem was not a strained muscle, as it had been announced by the club, but a small rupture.
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This would leave Ronaldo out of the weekend's trip to San Sebastian, where Real Madrid will meet Real Sociedad on Saturday afternoon, as well as the return leg against Manchester City in Madrid next Wednesday. That would make four consecutive matches without Ronaldo for Zidane's team.
A lot has been written about Ronaldo's -- and Lionel Messi's -- obsession with playing every single match. The level of competition between the two biggest stars in football leads them to stay on the pitch much longer than they should, as they have embarked in a passionate competition to beat the other's records.
After a lot of convincing, Barcelona's coach Luis Enrique has been able to rest the Argentine a couple of times when he's come back from international breaks with his country. For instance, in Barcelona's 4-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu, Messi joined the match as a sub in the second half.
Real Madrid coaches have been less persuasive with Ronaldo. This season, the Portuguese striker set to himself the somewhat bizarre goal of playing every single minute in La Liga, something that would obviously prove his resilience. It could also be seen as a somewhat counter-productive aim when you are the best player on a very deep team and the club needs you to compete in three different tournaments.
With Ronaldo out, it's a great opportunity for Gareth Bale to lead the team and silence some of his critics in Madrid.
Of course, the Pichichi -- the trophy for the top scorer of La Liga -- was also an objective of Ronaldo's, one that is directly related to the number of minutes he spends on the pitch. With the fierce competition of Luis Suarez, the Portuguese striker did not want to miss a single chance to score, and that meant no rest, no substitutions.
When the gravity of Ronaldo's injury was unclear, Sergio Ramos' statements regarding the Portuguese's obsession with playing time and personal accolades left quite clear that not even the team's captain was able to convince the striker to rest. It was also obvious that the issue was not a particularly pleasant one to discuss: "I'd prefer not to talk about this now," Ramos said.
Whether the Portuguese striker has learned the lesson is something that will be hard to assess before next season. But, for the time being, Real Madrid need to find an alternative at least for the next match and possibly the next two, and that does not mean simply introducing the hard-working, talented Lucas Vazquez into the lineup.
In a usual match, Ronaldo appears at the receiving end of the team's flow more often than any other Real Madrid player. Coupled with his durability and his obsession with scoring, he's taken more than 300 shots this season, far outpacing Benzema (126) and Gareth Bale (103).
Both Manchester City City and Real Madrid are confident heading into next Wednesday's decisive second leg in Madrid.
Who should become the team's focus, the player to be fed by the rest of the side? The obvious choice for Zidane is Gareth Bale. Ronaldo aside, the Welshman is the best finisher on the team, able to score with both feet and his head, and amazingly skilled at taking on defenders.
Even though Benzema's scoring has been outstanding this season, breaking the deadlock for his team in 11 La Liga matches, he's still equally comfortable passing the ball as he is taking the shots. Bale can seem selfish at times, but that kind of selfishness is an almost mandatory behaviour for great scorers.
Last Saturday in Vallecas, Bale proved that he could rescue the team from an uphill situation, both by finishing and by creating his own chances. His performance in Manchester wasn't as emphatic, but like against Rayo Vallecano, he ended up taking half of the team's shots.
The real challenge for the Welshman comes now. Real Madrid's next three matches -- at Real Sociedad on Saturday, at the Bernabeu on Wednesday against Manchester City and again at home versus Valencia the following weekend -- will define how far the team can go this season.
With all the question marks regarding Ronaldo's real shape, it's Bale's time to shine.
Eduardo is a football analyst and has been a Real Madrid socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.

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