Hotshot Ronaldo is ready to have the last laugh on Messi
Real star has one more league goal and one more hat-trick than Barça genius. He's also favourite to win the title
And so on it goes, like an auction for the European Golden Boot. This week Lionel Messi scratched his nose to cries of "39, 39, do I hear 40?" And Cristiano Ronaldo winked and nodded with league goals 38,39 and 40 for the season.
It was Ronaldo's seventh hat-trick of the campaign, Messi has six – there are young football fans growing up in Spain who don't realise it's the referee who is meant to walk off with the ball at the end of the game.
That Ronaldo has one more hat-trick, one more league goal, and is four points clear of Messi in the league with six games left will not have been lost on those who, for all the deserved adulation for Barcelona's number 10, see another ending to this season – one in which it is Ronaldo that does the league and Champions League double, wins that Golden Boot, and the Ballon D'Or at the end of the year.
So abundant are the records and statistics that their significance can wear thin with the repetition. One tally never stops sounding astonishing, though, no matter how many times it's updated and repeated – 138 goals in 136 games since he joined the club.
Real Madrid could tell stories about wasting money that would make out-going Liverpool director of football Damien Comolli blush but when they spent £80 million on Ronaldo three seasons ago they were investing shrewdly. This summer they will sit down with the player and his agent Jorge Mendes to renew the deal penned in 2009.
Ronaldo's people will push for a change in the distribution of his image rights that currently entitle Real Madrid to 50 per cent after the first £5m earned. The aim is to put him on a par with the world's top-earner Messi whose annual income is £30m. The player has already indicated he wants to stay in Madrid after Mourinho leaves saying: "I don't follow anybody," to suggestions he might exit with his manager.
Some players, Ronaldo among them, still believe that it is at least in part thanks to Mourinho that they lost last season's Champions League encounter with Barcelona because he ordered them to sit back in the first leg. The tactics riled Ronaldo, who was left out of the next league game after admitting as much post-match.
Despite the desire to survive Mourinho and thrive after he has gone, the current relationship is a good one and the player has benefited from the manager's much-questioned transfer activity – the £25m acquisition of utility player Fabio Coentrao and the demands that the club keep controversial defender Pepe.
Both have joined a group of Portuguese-speaking players who insulate Ronaldo from the cold shoulder that some of his more ostentatious goal celebrations receive from Spanish team-mates during matches. Xabi Alonso has been known to turn down invites to the Ronaldo-led goal celebration dance routine and flashing the upper right thigh after another missile has whistled past another goalkeeper is also looked down upon. But Ronaldo has emerged as Real Madrid's leader on the pitch and it's a case of follow him or get left behind.
All he needs now is for the Bernabeu to adore him as it would a Spanish 40-goals-a-season striker. Real Madrid supporters are slowly learning to love a player who has it within his reach to become the greatest in the club's modern history.
President Florentino Perez is already a believer. He went down to the dressing room after the midweek Madrid derby win to congratulate his best player. "Without my team-mates I would not be able to score or play my football," Ronaldo had said post-match, giving modesty his best shot.
He knows as well as anybody that he had won the derby single handedly. His third direct free-kick goal in as many weeks, his 22nd straight converted penalty and the spectacular 35-yarder that Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simone said he did not see – much like his goalkeeper the Chelsea loanee Thibaut Courtois – had little to do with anyone other than himself.
Why should he be humble, when on the pitch this season he has been perfect in every way?
The Portuguese striker has scored 52 goals in all competitions this season, including 40 league goals in 32 games – he has also provided 14 assists. Ronaldo scored his seventh hat-trick of the season at Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.
Although trailing Ronaldo by a goal in the league, Messi has scored more in all competitions. The Argentine has managed 61 goals this season while racking up an astonishing 34 assists.
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