Cristiano Ronaldo: Are Real Madrid a one-man team?
Stop Ronaldo and United have a great chance of pulling off a result because the other two strikers at Real, Higuain and Benzema, are short on confidence and goals
Having Cristiano Ronaldo in your team covers a multitude of sins – if a lack of invention and inspiration in front of goal means you can't pick the opposition's lock don't worry, Ronaldo will just break the door down.
As Manchester United concern themselves with how they might deal with him, the incentive could not be greater because stopping Ronaldo has so often this season meant stopping Real Madrid, such has been the poor form shown by both Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain.
One of the most telling things about Jose Mourinho's last team selection before the first leg against United was not so much the absence of players such as Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira – all rested to start fresh – but the presence of both his strikers. The message to Benzema and Higuain was clear – you don't need rest, you need the sharpness that only comes from games and the confidence that only comes from goals.
In that game against Seville last Saturday in which Ronaldo again carried the side with a hat-trick taking his tally to 182 goals in 179 games, Benzema bundled in Real Madrid's first goal of the game from practically a yard out and Higuain made the fourth goal before being sent off.
The latter – who has just seven goals in 42 Champions League games – has been doing extra sprint training in the lead up to the game. The former, who is expected to start, will be looking to add to his 13 goals in all competitions this season. Neither is playing as Mourinho would wish.
Benzema's problems go back to the summer when he was part of France's failure to fulfil their potential in the European Championship. Having not scored in any of his country's four games, he returned fatigued and low on confidence. That should have played into Higuain's hands but after scoring four in Real's first five games he then netted only once in the next seven as Madrid made light work of surrendering their title.
One of the mysteries of Mourinho's Madrid reign has been his relationship with the two strikers and one of the biggest unanswered questions has been why he has never looked to sign his type of centre-forward, something he seemed determined to do in 2010, his first year at the club.
No sooner had the first season started than he was demanding the club sign a third forward. His assessment that if you put Benzema and Higuain together you would get one complete striker was damning. "If I don't have my dog, I will have to go hunting with my cat" was his verdict one week on an injury to Higuain forcing him to pick Benzema.
It is the Frenchman in particular who seems to have always been the antithesis of the Mourinho centre-forward. Benzema scored just eight League goals in 27 games in his first season. He was slow to learn Spanish, making it harder for him to explain his way out of various off-the-field scrapes – driving straight into a tree on the way home from his first ever clasico being just one example. "In the dressing room the other players would speak and laugh together and, unable to understand, I would think: 'Are they laughing at me'?" he told L'Equipe. The shyness was coupled with a perceived laziness. "If we revolved around you, we would have to start training at 12 o'clock because you get here at half 10 asleep and you're still sleeping at 11," shouted Mourinho during one training session.
The very public digs from the coach, however, did get a response. "They forced me to work harder. I apply myself twice as much as I did at Lyons," he said last season. And Mourinho was sufficiently impressed with the transformation to stop calling for that third striker. Emmanuel Adebayor, who was brought in for the second half of Mouriho's first season in charge but not kept on, remains the closest he has come. Benzema's rise was at Higuain's expense and in the Frenchman's shadow the Argentine started looking elsewhere for first-team minutes towards the end of last season.
In the title-winning celebrations in May, he wore a shirt signed by all his team-mates – surely a goodbye gift – as his father and agent negotiated his way out of the club.
There was no move however and when Real kicked off the new season, it was as it had been when Mourinho arrived: two strikers to chose from – one suffering eternal dips in confidence and application, and the other never managing the consistency of form or fitness (Higuain had back surgery to right a slipped disc in 2011) to take advantage of the other's failings.
With the pair a long way from the form they showed last season, Madrid are a side that suffers when they fail to score first. In the first half of last season, Real opened the scoring in 15 of the first 22 weeks of the season and aside from the game against Barcelona, in all of those matches where they had taken the lead they ran out winners. In the other seven games they won five and lost two – coming from behind was not a big problem.
This season they have won 12 of the 14 games in which they took the lead but in the seven games where they did not score first they have been beaten five times. Madrid have scored 58 goals so far this season. At this stage of the last campaign they had already scored 79. Ronaldo has not slowed up, the rest have.
Defenders of both the other strikers suggest the real problem is that neither is built for the type of football Mourinho wants the team to play. He has resisted the temptation to bring in a Didier Drogba or Diego Milito clone and yet he still favours a style that demands such a centre-forward lead the line.
In this match, as so often over the past three seasons, Ronaldo may well be all it takes. But if United shut out their former favourite son then responsibility will pass first to Benzema and Higuain. Both will need their best performance of the season so far if they are to be up to the challenge.
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