Re-invented Ronaldo has Real Madrid on Champions League final cusp with hat trick
A hat trick from Cristiano Ronaldo put Real Madrid on the brink of a 15th Champions League final, as Zinedine Zidane’s side beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the first leg of their semifinal on Tuesday.
Strangely open early on, Atletico fell behind to a slightly controversial 10th-minute Ronaldo header and never got to grips with the game. Real then picked off its city rival twice on the break as Atletico was forced to chase the game. Next Wednesday’s second leg already feels like a formality as Atletico faces being put out of the Champions League by Real for the fourth consecutive season.
Here are three thoughts on a one-sided first leg:
Ronaldo is Real's match-winning star again
Ronaldo is not the player he used to be but, strangely, that has arguably made him a more effective player, at least in terms of scoring decisive goals. It would be hard to claim Ronaldo had exerted a consistent influence in Real Madrid’s last three Champions League games–he was even booed by the home fans during the home win over Bayern Munich–and yet he has scored eight goals in them. He is much more of a box player now than he used to be, much less of a dribbler, but he remains a devastating presence, an explosive minimalist, less a footballer than a box of goal potential waiting to be unlocked.
Ronaldo set Real Madrid on its way after 10 minutes with a powerful header, neck muscles rippling in the classic manner of an old-fashioned No. 9. His second came after 73 minutes. Karim Benzema showed great strength and poise, and when Ronaldo had a little good fortune as Filipe Luis’s half-challenge on him popped up nicely, he thrashed in a powerful right-footed finish. The third came with four minutes remaining as Lucas Vazquez got to the line and pulled the ball back for Ronaldo to drive in.
It was his 103rd Champions League goal and his 13th in semifinals, a barely credible record.
Did Atletico Madrid gamble too much in pursuit of an away goal?
Diego Simeone had made clear in the build-up that he felt his side needed to score, to diminish the value of a possible Real Madrid goal at the Calderon in the second leg (a very real fear given it has not been held scoreless in its last 59 games), but as the home side dominated the early stages it seemed that thought process had led him to set Atletico up in a dangerously open way. The two center forwards, Kevin Gameiro and Antoine Griezman, both spent the first quarter of an hour high up the field waiting for a break. In that time, not only had Real Madrid scored, but goalkeeper Jan Oblak had been drawn into excellent saves to deny Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane. As the pair dropped deeper, Atletico began to staunch the flow.
Carvajal was forced off at halftime after landing awkwardly after jumping for an aerial ball. He and Marcelo have been in superb form of late, and, without its regular right back, Real Madrid seemed diminished. Nacho, who has played at center back for much of this season, came on in his place, but the attacking threat on that flank dropped off. That perhaps emboldened Simeone to bring on Nicolas Gaitan after 58 minutes with Yannick Carrasco switching to the opposite flank as the more defensively minded Saul Niguez went off. But Atletico never imposed itself as an attacking threat and Real was a comfortable and deserved winner.
Did Ronaldo score another offside goal?
Perhaps it wasn’t as gratuitous as his second and third goals in the second leg against Bayern Munich, but there’s a strong argument that Ronaldo’s opening goal should also have been ruled out for offside. He was onside when he powered Casemiro’s cross past Oblak with a typically fine header, but the issue was in the previous phase of play. As Sergio Ramos crossed, Ronaldo was clearly offside.
Stefan Savic headed clear, but given Ronaldo was a couple of feet behind the defender, he was clearly interfering with play. Had Ronaldo not been there, Savic could conceivably have let the cross go, or taken the ball down. At the very least, he could have made his header in more comfort–and one of the reasons Savic couldn’t make a challenge on Ronaldo as Casemiro crossed was that he was still off balance from making that clearance.
That wasn’t the only refereeing decision that went Real Madrid’s way. Isco, having already been booked, caught Koke late just after the hour. Referee Martin Atkinson didn’t see it, but if he had, it could easily have been a second yellow card. Isco had been excellent to that point, but he was withdrawn for Marcos Asensio three minutes later. That perhaps hinted at the pecking order of the forwards, but it was surely also a response to the possible threat of a red card. That said, Atkinson was generally lenient and both Gaitan and Filipe Luis were also fortunate to avoid yellow cards. Regardless, Real Madrid was simply the better team. There may have been quibbles over individual moments, but it would be hard to claim they were decisive.