Cristiano Ronaldo’s brace in Real Madrid’s 3-1 Champions League win over Schalke saw him level Ferenc Puskas’s goal tally of 242 for Los Blancos, but a season-ending injury to Jese Rodriguez on Tuesday night showed the high risk of playing the Portuguese just days before the crucial El Clasico contest and with the last-16 tie all-but over.
Madrid did the damage in Gelsenkirchen with Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema scoring two goals apiece in a 6-1 first-leg victory that rendered the return match at the Bernabeu as somewhat of a procession. It was the perfect result, with Carlo Ancelotti’s side all-but booking their place in the quarter-finals and the Italian able to rest key men ahead of his side’s biggest match of the season so far this Sunday when Barcelona make the trip to the Spanish capital.
Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Angel Di Maria, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo and Pepe were all given time out for the visit of the Bundesliga club with Ancelotti giving young players including Jese, Nacho, Isco, Alvaro Morata and Asier Illarramendi the chance to shine on the big stage. Madrid featured eight Spanish players in their starting eleven for the first time in eleven years in the Champions League. The last time that happened was all the way back in 2002 against Genk.
There’s no rest for the wicked, however, and in Ronaldo Madrid have a man addicted to scoring, addicted to breaking records and addicted to being the best in the world. Like his La Liga nemesis Lionel Messi at Barcelona, the former Manchester United man does not like missing out whether it be a crucial league encounter, a comfortable Champions League night or a dead rubber of a cup contest. El Clasico is only days away but Ronaldo was not missing the chance to further cement his name in the football history books.
He went into the match just two goals shy of Puskas’s record of 242 club goals for the Bernabeu club. The Hungarian reached his tally in 261 games but Ronaldo had the chance to do it in just 236. The Ballon d’Or winner averaged a goal every 1.02 games for Madrid, the only player ever to average over one goal per game for the club, and with the player in arguably the form of his life, few were betting against him reaching that target against the Germans.
It took 21 minutes for his first and some justification for risking him. Bale, who replaced the injured Jese after just three minutes, was the provider, drilling a low cross from the right that Ronaldo prodded home from close range. The Germans had levelled thanks to a deflected Tim Hoogland shot just before half-time but Madrid were in control for long spells and grabbed a deserved second with 16 minutes left. This time Ronaldo used his sheer pace and power to drive forward from halfway before drilling a low shot underneath Ralf Fährmann to send his side on the way to another win and level Puskas in the club’s goalscoring records.
He could, and probably should, have edged ahead of the Madrid legend with the woodwork twice denying the Portuguese late on. His desperation for goals was summed up with six minutes left on the clock and with his side 9-2 up on aggregate when Isco decided to take a shot on himself from an acute angle rather than pass across the face of goal to his hat-trick seeking teammate. The arms started flying, the frustration was there to see. This is a player who, despite a seven-goal cushion on aggregate and a two-goal cushion on the night, was still seeking perfection.
It wasn’t all about him, though. While the perception of Ronaldo as a selfish player will rumble on in some quarters, Ronaldo was very much a team player on Tuesday night. A brilliant flick in the first-half put Morata in on goal when Madrid’s No.7 could have taken a shot on himself, while he was the first man to go and congratulate the Spanish under-21 international when he got his goal, and Madrid’s third, after Ronaldo had seen his shot come back off the woodwork. This is a player happy with himself and happy with the players around him and that’s not a good sign for his opponents.
As well as chasing Puskas’s tally arguably the more important record Ronaldo is chasing in this season’s competition is to be the Champions League’s highest scorer in a single campaign. That record is currently held by Messi with 14 and Ronaldo’s brace now leaves him on 13 with a possible five matches still to play if his side make it to Lisbon. It seems only a case of if, and not when, although Paris St Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic is chasing the same target and has ten to his name so far.
In the longer term he is also looking to overtake Madrid legend Raul’s all-time Champions League goal scoring record of 71. Ronaldo now has 64 in 99 matches in the competition while Messi has 67 in 83. Both players are expected to topple Raul but as a Madridista Ronaldo will be keen to be the first to do it. That he played the full 90 minutes in a relatively dead rubber match against Schalke this week shows how keen he is.
But for all of the goals and all of the stats, the night could have been different had Ronaldo been risked and had he suffered the same fate as his fellow attacker Jese, who will not only miss Sunday’s Clasico clash but will also miss the rest of the season after tearing his cruciate ligament just minutes into Tuesday’s match. The Las Palmas-born youngster fell under what seemed to be an innocuous challenge but fell awkwardly and needed the use of the stretcher to leave the pitch. The injury blow is a blot on what’s been an impressive breakthrough year for the youngster and his absence will be blow as his club fight for an historic treble in the coming months.
It highlighted the risk in playing Ronaldo just days before the Barcelona match. Thoughts had already mostly turned to Sunday despite claims from Ancelotti, and indeed Jese, in the pre-match press conference, that the focus was fully on Schalke - they were not going to say anything else. There was more concern about having fresh legs and staying injury-free for the Clasico than hitting another six past the Germans but while the Italian picks the team, the rumours that Ronaldo pleaded with his manager to play may not be too far from the truth.
As it happened the 29-year-old will now head into El Clasico in a superb run of form. He may have levelled Puskas’s record against Schalke but he can now edge ahead of the Hungarian to become Madrid’s fourth highest scorer on the best stage of them all against Barca. Ronaldo passed Hugo Sanchez’s tally in September thanks to a brace against Getafe and he now trails only Santillana (290), Alfredo Di Stefano (307) and Raul (323). Expect those records to follow suit.