Cristiano Ronaldo's reinvention at Real Madrid could mean bother for Bayern Munich

Ronaldo celebrates scoring the last-gasp penalty that got Real Madrid into the semifinals
Updated 24 April 2018
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Cristiano Ronaldo's reinvention at Real Madrid could mean bother for Bayern Munich

  • The most common fixture in European football: Bayern take on Real for the 25th time
  • Ronaldo is in fine form heading into the last-four clash.

LONDON: Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Cristiano Ronaldo’s career is how he has reinvented himself.
It is not just that he has reduced his effective playing area each season, transitioning from fast dribbling winger to souped-up target-man, it is that in doing so he has made himself a more effective player — and that is what must trouble Bayern Munich, who have in the past exposed his flaws, before today’s Champions League semifinal.
Ronaldo was always a flawed genius. He had immense dedication and turned himself into the physical embodiment of the ideal player, powerful and quick. He could beat opponents for skill but he could also beat them for strength. And yet there was always a sense that the game was about him and not about the team.
If he was chasing the golden boot, he would shoot from ludicrous positions rather than passing to better-placed teammates. After Manchester United had beaten Chelsea in the Champions League final in 2008, despite Ronaldo missing a penalty in the shootout, he sat alone in tears as the rest of the side celebrated in front of the United fans. Similarly, his celebrations after scoring the penalty that gave Real Madrid a 4-1 lead in the 120th minute of the 2014 final seemed excessive for a goal that meant almost nothing.
But worse was his neglect of his defensive duties. That was why Sir Alex Ferguson began using him as a central striker in the 2007-08 season, realizing that Wayne Rooney would be far more diligent in tracking the opposing full-back. The Champions League semifinal in 2012 was a perfect illustration of the problem. Ronaldo set up Mesut Ozil’s goal as Madrid lost 2-1 in Munich and then scored twice early on at the Bernabeu in the second leg. But it was his failure to check the forward surges of Philipp Lahm from full-back that ended up costing Madrid the game.
The same self-obsession that had made him such a great physical and technical player was also what made him a tactical problem. It is why, until very recently, he had won relatively little. This is his ninth season in Spain, playing for one of the two richest clubs in the world, yet he has won only two Spanish league titles.
His conversion into a central striker, while it may make Madrid a little more predictable, has also made them a better-balanced side.
There is no danger now of the opposing full-back having the run of the flank. Few full-backs had the chutzpah to call Ronaldo’s bluff and drive past him, risking leaving him untended. No center-back will and, even if they do, a player moving into central midfield where there are more bodies is less likely to pose a threat than a full-back advancing into the space that more naturally occurs on the flank.
And Ronaldo’s finishing, particularly in big games, has been remarkable. He has scored six goals in four games in the knockout stage so far this season — including that overhead kick against Juventus — to go with 10 in the knockout stage last season and five the season before.
He is now a player of a type the world has perhaps never seen before: A combination of poacher and target-man all mediated through the technical ability that initially made him stand out as a winger. His involvement in games is often minimal, until he scores the goal that turns the tie. It is not something every side could get away with, but Madrid have enough in midfield that they can carry a player who gives them such cutting edge — provided he plays centrally. And Bayern will doubtless be all too aware of that.
 


KEY CLASH

ARJEN ROBBEN vs MARCELO

Just because Cristiano Ronaldo no longer plays on the flank doesn’t mean that a winger vs. full-back battle will not still be key. Arjen Robben may be 34, but he remains the most dangerous creative player Bayern have. Defenders may know he is going to cut inside onto his left foot and shoot but they still seem unable to stop him. That means that Marcelo, particularly in the first leg in Munich, is likely to be tested — and for all his many, many qualities as an attacking full-back there have always been questions about his defensive caliber. Similarly, if Madrid can gain a foothold in midfield, Marcelo’s surges past Robben — and the Brazilian will surely have the edge for pace — could be a potent attacking outlet for Madrid.


UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni admits performances have been poor ahead of Socceroos clash

Updated 22 January 2019
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UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni admits performances have been poor ahead of Socceroos clash

  • UAE boss still under spotlight despite side reaching lasts-eight, where they will face Australia.
  • Hosts struggled to beat Kyrgyzstan in second-round after underwhelming group stage.

LONDON: Having guided your team to the last eight of the Asian Cup, it must seem strange to find yourself on the defensive. But that is the situation Alberto Zaccheroni, right, faced after leading the UAE to a second-round win over Kyrgyzstan.
The hosts were strongly fancied to see off the Central Asians in their knockout clash in Abu Dhabi, but were taken to extra time and the likely drama of penalties when Ahmed Khalil grabbed the winner in the 103rd minute.
The performance added to the impression that the Whites have made the quarterfinals through luck rather than ability. The team has looked far from impressive during the group stage and anything but possible winners overall.
They now face reigning champions Australia — and even the UAE boss admitted they will have their work cut out unless they improve. “I admit that against (Kyrgyzstan) we seemed to struggle with long ball and crosses, and we also had one or two chances to score and secure the game, but we didn’t convert those opportunities,” the Italian former coach of AC Milan and Juventus said.
“We will try to correct all the things that we believe were less positive between now and the quarterfinals. We now have three days to assess our squad and their injuries before we face a strong Australia team.”
Usually when a team reaches the later stages of a big tournament, players and coaches ignore the performance and pretend all is grand — generally with an emphatic declaration that they will win the title.
Zaccheroni’s post-match reaction was anything but bombastic, however. That is not only a pleasant change but also an appreciation that the UAE have been anything but impressive in their march — in fact, more a slow plod — to the last eight.
This is Kyrgyzstan’s first Asian Cup, and they are far from world-beaters. Playing at home with hopes of lighting the trophy on Feb. 1, the UAE should have easily beaten the Central Asian outfit.
Goals from Mirlan Murzaev and a dramatic late equalizer from substitute Tursunali Rustamov canceled out strikes by Khamis Esmaeel and Ali Mabkhouts. On top of that they hit the bar and the post. It took a controversial Khalil spot-kick to win the match, one that left the Central Asians with a bitter taste in the mouth.
“I don’t want to talk about the referee,” Kyrgyzstan coach Aleksandr Krestinin said.
“We leave the tournament with a lot of regrets — we deserved more. It’s our first Asian Cup, but I’m sure it won’t be our last and we will come back stronger.”
There is a sense the UAE cannot play much worse than they have so far, and the hope will be that they can find a good performance in the quarterfinal against the Socceroos. If they are to shock the reigning champions, they will need Khalil to find his scoring boots again.
“Ahmed Khalil is a very good striker, he is one of the best in Asia,” Zaccheroni said of the 2015 AFC Player of the Year.
“When I took over the UAE team (at the end of 2017), he was injured and had not trained for a long time. He has also been injured many times recently and did not play often for his club.
“Nevertheless, he is a very good player, and I have to say that I rely on him a lot. He does so much for the team.”