Rested Ronaldo makes all the difference for Real Madrid in its trophy pursuits
- With Zinedine Zidane managing Cristiano Ronaldo's minutes, Real Madrid's star has the club in position to win La Liga and Champions League titles–and himself a fifth Ballon d'Or.
A little rest has done Cristiano Ronaldo a lot of good.
Despite all of his success in less than two years as a manager, Zinedine Zidane maintains his fair share of critics who call him lucky, but there is nothing fortunate about the way he has cautiously handled the minutes of his aging superstar down the stretch of yet another busy season.
Ronaldo, like most players of his stature for club and country, doesn't get a whole lot of time off. His last summer was consumed by helping Portugal reach the Euro 2016 final, only to suffer a debilitating injury in the title game. He returned in September after two months out and has continued on ever since at the only speed he knows. He might not have the same game-breaking pace anymore, but as many have chronicled, he's turned into a preeminent No. 9, evolving his game as necessary to remain elite as Father Time begins its descent.
His 24 goals in La Liga this season are his fewest at his time in the Spanish capital, but he's been saving the best for last. Rested down the stretch by Zidane, who has the luxury of a deep bench, for four straight league away games and on course for his fewest amount of La Liga games played in six years, Ronaldo is thriving in the season's most vital moments.
In Ronaldo's last eight appearances, he has five multi-goal games, including a pair of hat tricks in the Champions League against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. The only two games in which he didn't score were Real Madrid losses–El Clasico's heartbreaker vs. Barcelona and the Champions League second leg vs. Atletico Madrid, from which Real emerged victorious on aggregate.
His two goals Wednesday vs. Celta Vigo lifted Real Madrid to the top of the table, with the club making the most of the game it's had in hand for months, and now the path to win its first La Liga title since 2012–and only the second in Ronaldo's time at the club–is clear.
A draw or better at Malaga (Real won the reverse fixture 2-1 in January on two Sergio Ramos goals) will render what Barcelona does against Eibar irrelevant. A loss would open the door for Barcelona to seize the title with a win, as Barcelona has the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of Lionel Messi's heroics in El Clasico.
Now it's entirely possible that Real slips up at the final hurdle, but provided it does not, take into account what it would mean for Ronaldo personally, in an age when the prestigious individual awards are typically reserved for the best players on the trophy-winning teams. Add a league title to a potential second straight Champions League title, and Ronaldo can prepare to pick out his tux for receiving a fifth Ballon d'Or, which would bring him level with Messi for the most in history.
For anyone who has been following Ronaldo, the significance of that to him cannot be understated, and for that, he'd have Zidane largely to thank.