Ronaldo has 90 minutes to steal limelight and cast shadow on stellar Messi

Strained relationship with manager and continued success of his Barça nemesis are weighing heavy on Real's returning talisman
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Barcelona fans shared a joke earlier in the season at Cristiano Ronaldo's expense. In a photo montage passed between supporters, Ronaldo and Leo Messi are being interviewed together and when the Real Madrid player tells the interviewer: "God told me I was put on earth to entertain people," Messi replies: "I told him nothing of the sort."

The two best players in the world have scored more than 100 goals between them this season, and neither deserved to be part of last week's Champions League abomination. But while Messi was the god who restored everyone's faith in football, Ronaldo was again the mere mortal. The man who barring a miracle tonight will have to watch his nemesis face Manchester United in the Champions League final.

Listening to the Jose Mourinho apologists last week – and there were some – it would have been easy to believe the semi-final first leg had actually been an FA Cup fifth-round tie in which he had led a group of part-timers to within minutes of a famous goalless draw.

Plucky little Madrid and their £400m squad had done their best to bully Barcelona out of their stride. Mourinho's tactics were justified, his supporters said, because "no one can compete with Barça". Ronaldo's heart must sink every time he hears such talk – every time someone says: "Of course Mourinho wouldn't play like this if he was Barcelona coach with Messi at his disposal."

Behind that image of Madrid's 51-goal forward turning to his team-mates in the first half and protesting at their reluctance to cross the halfway line to pressure Barcelona defenders, lies an uncomfortable truth – they were probably carrying out orders; he probably wasn't.

That, and the revealing post-match admission that he did not like the tactics but felt he had to adapt to them, contributed to Ronaldo's omission from the weekend's league match against lowly Zaragoza. And as he canoodled in the stands with his girlfriend, Irina Shayk, Madrid capitulated without him – they have lost two home games this season and on both occasions Mourinho, in his wisdom, decided to rest his talisman.

Tonight he starts and unless there is a repeat of the curious tactic of waiting until the last 20 minutes to attack – the botched masterplan from the first leg – then Ronaldo will be back in a four-man forward line going for goals.

Whatever happens tonight Ronaldo's second season at Real has been an improvement on his first. When the dust settles from the campaign's five clasicos he can take heart in the towering header in extra-time that won the Spanish Cup for Madrid, his first trophy since joining. And the relationship with his manager has been for the most part good. Players love Mourinho more than anything because they win medals with him and true to form the coach who has been winning at least one trophy a season since 2003 has delivered.

But Ronaldo will also take a certain frustration with him if tonight's game follows the pattern of the first leg. "I would like the chance to play against 10 men," he snapped when asked about Messi's goal last week.

What he stopped short of saying, but hinted at when he said he had not liked the team's negative tactics, was that he would also like to play in a side that throws the same caution to the wind as Barcelona.

Those defending Mourinho after the first leg claimed he could not possibly have gone toe-to-toe with the Spanish Champions as it would have resulted in the same 5-0 scoreline that his team suffered last November. Yet just a week earlier Real Madrid had done exactly that in the Spanish Cup final and, courtesy of Ronaldo's first goal in open play against Barca, won the Copa del Rey. Having approached the first leg as if it were an away match Mourinho must now prepare the second game as if it were the home tie.

Pepe's suspension and an injury to Sami Khedira limits midfield options so Xabi Alonso is likely to partner Lassana Diarra as Mourinho switches back to 4-2-3-1. The second change from the first leg will be that Ronaldo will not play furthest forward.

Gerard Pique has spoken of how much more difficult he is to deal with when coming from deeper. The man who is currently holding together Barcelona's crumbling rearguard said last week: "If he gets you one on one in a sprint, he is unstoppable. When he is stationary he is not so dangerous."

Ronaldo's Cup-final goal came from playing at centre-forward but the majority of his goals this season have come from an inside left or right position that allows him to charge in from either flank and shoot. That is where he will be tonight with either Emmanuel Adebayor or Karim Benzema shouldering No 9 duties.

Although Ronaldo's displeasure at Real's passive approach in the first half last Wednesday came through in his heated post-match comments, from the same interview it was also clear that after years of knowing who was boss at Old Trafford there is a similar lack of dissent under Mourinho.

He spoke of how the sending off had been not just unfair on the team but also on the coach who had "suffered such injustices before". The pair have stuck together before during this season, most memorably when Osasuna striker Walter Pandiani accused Ronaldo of "having a screw loose". "Daddy will always stick up for him," said Pandiani of Mourinho, who also lifted the pressure from his player's shoulders last month when he said: "If he doesn't score another goal until the end of May he will still have had a fantastic season."

Part of Pandiani's rant was that Ronaldo should "show the same humility displayed by Messi". The constant "why can't you be like that nice Leo" refrain rankles with Ronaldo almost as much as the Argentine's narrow goalscoring advantage over him in all competitions.

Messi leads the scoring stakes 3-2 over the four clasicos played this season. He also leads Ronaldo in the race for the Golden Boot. The Champions League final will give him another game to close in on Ruud van Nistelrooy's record of 12 goals in the tournament in one season and he will also take a giant step to another Balon D'Or by making it to Wembley.

The final chapter of the season appears to have already been written. Ronaldo has 90 minutes to rewrite it. But he will need a helping hand from a manager who still believes that Barcelona can be beaten by just playing football.

Three key confrontations

Carles Puyol v Cristiano Ronaldo

Puyol has been moved from central defence to left-back specifically to combat the threat of Ronaldo on the right flank. Puyol should be physically up to the task and also have an advantage when Ronaldo cuts infield on to his left foot. The Portuguese winger is the only Real Madrid player to have scored against Barça in any of the last six games between the two sides.

Andres Iniesta v Lassana Diarra

Real Madrid had enough trouble stifling Barcelona without Iniesta so the return of the World Cup winner in the second leg will not make things any easier. The influential playmaker is back from injury and will link the play between midfield and attack. Real's midfield enforcer, Diarra, must not allow Iniesta the space that Lionel Messi enjoyed in the first leg or the tie will be over.

David Villa v Ricardo Carvalho

Villa's movement on such a large pitch as that at Nou Camp – not only in behind the defence but also when he drops out to the left flank – can cause confusion in terms of marking. With 76 Champions League appearances, Carvalho has vast experience at this level but questions remain over whether the 32-year-old will be able to keep pace with Barça's dynamic striker.