Why it's time for Real Madrid to sacrifice Cristiano Ronaldo
Real Madrid confirmed their status as the kings of Europe on Tuesday evening with a 2-1 victory over Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup in Skopje, Macedonia. However, it was the omission of traditional talisman Cristiano Ronaldo that added weight to the argument that it could now be time for Real Madrid to bring an end to this particular era of individual brilliance.
A goal from Casemiro, the marauding midfield powerhouse that has discovered his goalscoring prowess at the Spanish capital, opened the scoring, before the creatively brilliant Isco added a second after the break.
Romelu Lukaku offered Manchester United largely futile hope when he capitalised on an error by goalkeeper Keylor Navas on the hour mark. However, the facts of the match were not the main topic of debate, as Los Blancos celebrated further silverware long into the night.
For the best part of the last decade, Ronaldo has been synonymous with Real Madrid. He headlines their success, and has been largely responsible for it. Despite the illustrious company that has defined this club throughout history, he is regarded as their greatest ever player in certain quarters, and the statistics that emphasise his influence cannot be dismissed. However, his impact comes at a price, and to see Real Madrid at their formidable best on Tuesday without him highlighted the negative aspects of his talismanic status.
When Ronaldo plays, he is at the centre of everything, and that is the level of attention he demands. When he moves for a forward pass, others make space for him. When he raises his arm for service, all other options are considered void. Although his ability justifies the demands he places upon his team mates, he plays the leading role in this particular play, and the remaining cast must freestyle to his demands.
It is an approach that has brought success, but also frustration. Watching Real Madrid play without the shackles of Ronaldo's demands on Tuesday was sufficient to suggest it may be time for him to leave. Gareth Bale was complemented by the charging midfield runs of Casemiro, with Karim Benzema acting as the pivot between the two in attack. Isco settled into a deep and free role behind the trio and dictated play with relaxed brilliance. There were no demands for his possession from one central figure, there were instead, available options.
In fact, the entire team rotated in perfect symmetry, all mirroring each others positions in harmony, all opening up space to a level that left the Manchester United defence to chase shadows for long periods of the match.
Jose Mourinho cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines, his knowledge of this Madrid side largely restricted to the style employed by the presence of Ronaldo, while Zinedine Zidane basked in the brilliance of his European champions.
But also watching on was Ronaldo. He watched on as his side create chance after chance, rattling both the post and the crossbar. The convincing victory was never really in doubt, despite the occasional defensive scare.
The camera regularly turned to Ronaldo in the opening half, but as Los Blancos dominated proceedings, he became less and less relevant. United scored on the hour to suggest that the game was not over, but their physical advantage eventually proved ineffective.
As the sweltering heat of the Macedonian capital persisted it proved to be the toughest opponent for both sides. It was technical quality over pace and power that became the deciding factor as a direct result of the conditions, and that played right into Madrid's hands. Ronaldo reminded the fans and the cameras of his presence as he warmed-up midway through the second half, but it appeared that this night of glory would not have his stamp upon it.
Real Madrid are a squad of players blessed with incredible technical ability, but they need the freedom to express the talent that justifies their place at the Santiago Bernabeu. Mourinho's summer investment on height and power may serve him well in the English Premier League, but not against Europe's elite. Bale and Isco were eventually replaced as Zidane effectively managed his squad, but the change in personal did little to disrupt their rhythm.
Of course there would be a cameo appearance for Ronaldo on the night, no Real Madrid success would be complete without his photogenic presence. Appearances from the bench are extremely rare and not something he will wish to make a habit of, despite entering the latter years of his career. He came off the bench for the final few minutes, and while his obvious contribution on the field was largely negligible, the approach from his side immediately switched to accommodate his demands.
Cristiano Ronaldo still has much to offer the game at the very highest level, and there is no reason why he cannot influence more success at Real Madrid. However, the concern centres around the fact that Madrid played far better football on Tuesday night, and more significantly, looked a far better team without him. His night ended with a wild free-kick that flew high and wide past David de Gea. The goalkeeper untroubled and unfazed.
Ronaldo is ultimately now a constrictive presence in this Real Madrid side, and as his powers naturally wane through the passage of time, he will cut an increasingly frustrated figure.
This has already been a monumental summer in terms of transfers, but it could be the departure of a Galactico, rather than the traditional arrival of one, that potentially offers Madrid the best chance of taking their game into a whole new and exciting era.