Cristiano Ronaldo goes beyond the goalscoring heroics to become Real Madrid team leader

In inspiring Madrid to victory in el clasico, striker again puts Messi in the shade

Madrid

To say he left a boy and comes back a man would be a gross exaggeration – Cristiano Ronaldo was already capable of carrying a team when he left Manchester United. But, as he returns to Old Trafford tomorrow for the first time since he left in 2009, one transition is more evident than ever – the soloist prone to self-indulgence has become not just a team man but a leader of men.

In Saturday's La Liga win over Barcelona, the Real Madrid team seemed to stand taller and run faster from the minute Ronaldo stripped for action in the home dugout and began tying the laces on those luminous cerise boots in which he has thundered home his 39 goals this season.

With the score at 1-1 and the clasico-lite sliding toward stalemate, he lifted the Bernabeu and literally told his team-mates that victory was there for the taking, running straight to young striker Alvaro Morata to issue tactical orders and encouragement.

The 20-year-old forward said after the game: "Cristiano said to me that he was going to play through the middle and that I should keep looking for space out wide and to be strong because we had to win the match."

Morata responded with an excellent last 30 minutes. He was put through by Pepe only to lose the one-on-one duel with goalkeeper Victor Valdes, but with Ronaldo by his side Barcelona were squeezed on to the back foot in a last half-hour that could otherwise easily have been played out at a pedestrian pace with both teams settling for a point.

In that final period Ronaldo was back in the old centre-forward territory he once occupied for United. It remains an option for Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, although the resting of Gonzalo Higuain suggests the Argentine will start tomorrow. Ronaldo immediately drew a foul from Gerard Pique and, though he wasted the free-kick, he went closer with his next effort that Valdes punched away, and closer still with his third that bounced back off the bar. But it was the effect he had on the team more than the six shots he managed in his second-half cameo that really drew the attention. Captain Sergio Ramos headed in the winner but Cristiano – as everyone at Madrid calls him to differentiate him from the "original" Ronaldo – had been the catalyst for the late cavalry charge.

As sticklers for tradition, Real Madrid are a club where a player needs to be the longest-serving on the pitch to wear the armband. They broke with that tradition earlier this season when Ronaldo continued as captain despite Iker Casillas – who has been recalled to the squad to face United after his hand injury – having come on as a substitute.

Ramos is set for a long innings at the heart of Madrid's defence, especially now he has found his perfect partner in the never-flustered Raphaël Varane, who has been immaculate in three games against United and Barça, conceding just one foul – and that for what looked a perfectly legal challenge on Pedro on Saturday.

Varane makes Ramos a better player and the armband will be staying with the Andalusian defender. But as Pepe, Marcelo and Casillas have lost first-team places Ronaldo has moved up the line of succession. He will wear the armband again and his team-mates are in increasing agreement that he wears it well.

A dressing-room row with Mourinho after a cup first-leg game with Valencia further demonstrated that there is no special treatment from the special one. Neither are their futures inextricably linked. If Mourinho goes that won't necessarily mean Ronaldo will follow.

Comments earlier in the season about being "sad" at Real Madrid were put down to him being unhappy at not being the world's highest-paid player. Financial concerns will have been a factor – for a star of the Jorge Mendes stable to have been at the same club for three and half years without the offer of an improved deal is tantamount to working pro bono – but there was also some truth in claims this gripe was about other things. Ronaldo felt disrespected when he went to the European Footballer of the Year presentation last year accompanied only by Emilio Butragueno and a low-ranking club director, while Barcelona's players went with their president, Sandro Rosell. In contrast, at the Ballon D'Or ceremony in January the whole troop turned out and the president, Florentino Perez, led the entourage.

More love has come Ronaldo's way since the turn of the year both from the boardroom and the Bernabeu. He has scored 16 times so far in 2013, looking sharper than ever and with a gravitas on the pitch that comes not just from his goals but from the dressing room's acceptance of his importance.

None of this has moved a new contract any closer. There will be a meeting at the end of the season – or before, if Madrid are eliminated from the Champions League. Ronaldo will take to the table an interest from clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. Real Madrid come armed with the idea that if Ronaldo goes Gareth Bale would be a ready-made replacement.

But it remains difficult for any Madrid fan to believe the Tottenham player could leave Lionel Messi in his shadow as Ronaldo has done in the last week. Since Ronaldo has been at Madrid, Messi has scored 12 goals in clasicos; Ronaldo also has 12 and they have been important ones.

The first goal he scored in the cup last Tuesday broke Barcelona's resistance and made him the first player to score in six away meetings with the old enemy. Long gone are accusations that he cannot perform in the most important games. Gone too is the belief that in order to perform he always has to be the goalscoring hero.

The old Ronaldo who could leave the pitch a European Cup winner but still be in tears because he had missed his penalty is gone. On Saturday he didn't score – the 40th goal of the season in all competitions is still pending ahead of the visit to Old Trafford – but there was satisfaction at a job well done… and a team well led.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?