Spain hails Ronaldo as free-kick maestro

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The "Ronaldometer" is back up to delirium level in Madrid after his free-kick double in midweek saw Real score five goals in Europe for the first time in over 10 years.

Claims that he will make the Bernabeu "weep with joy" by emulating Pele, Maradona and Di Stefano, and that winning a free-kick with him in the side is now tantamount to being awarded a spot-kick, featured among the plaudits.

One newspaper has even worked out that his free-kicks reach speeds of over 103kmph (64mph), leaving goalkeepers with little chance.

The reignited euphoria is unlikely to cool tomorrow when he goes up against La Liga's weakest team in a bid to add to the four goals he has scored in his first three matches.

Xerez have no money, no points and not much chance of staying up beyond this, their first ever season in the top flight, and their Brazilian goalkeeper Renan has been getting his excuses in early should he become Ronaldo's next victim.

He said: "Every year they change the ball and it is always in favour of the forwards. Each season it is more difficult to be a goalkeeper but you have to try to get used to it."

Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas agreed but believes Ronaldo's unique way of striking the ball makes him so lethal from set-pieces. He said: "When they make a new ball they are looking for more goals but Cristiano has a different way of hitting it.

"He hits it with the whole of the front of his foot and then the ball does something in the air. When you are watching from the sidelines, it looks like the goalkeeper has made a mess of it but when you are the man in goal you realise how hard it is to stop. He can become one of the all-time free-kick greats, going even beyond someone like Roberto Carlos."

The former Real Madrid and Brazil left-back added to the praise saying: "When you have Cristiano, being awarded a free-kick it is like being awarded a penalty." But the comments mark a major sea change from last week when the £80m signing was being questioned and his free-kick tally of 15 taken, none scored, was being used against him.

Former Manchester United and Real Madrid fitness coach Valter Di Salvo has backed Ronaldo to survive the peaks and troughs in public opinion. Di Salvo said: "I have absolutely no doubt that he has the strength to overcome any criticism. He has a mental strength that matches his ability. Ferguson has helped him a lot in that respect, giving him a stability that has been fundamental." Di Salvo added: "Cristiano is going to make the Bernabeu fans cry with happiness."

Spotlight on Thierry Henry

"I was angry at being taken off," said Thierry Henry after his second-half substitution against Internazionale in midweek. "I didn't want to leave the pitch. I felt good and I was looking into Maicon's eyes and he looked very tired." Leading Barcelona paper El Mundo Deportivo disagreed, saying: "Neither did Maicon look tired nor Henry look good." But Henry was backed by coach Pep Guardiola, who said: "Perhaps he was right, maybe I took him off when he was at his best in the game." Henry should get another start today against an Atletico Madrid side who have one point from their two opening games.

Talking point Leo Messi

Lionel Messi yesterday became the best-paid player on the planet after signing a new contract with Barcelona worth €10.5m (£9.5m) per year after tax.

The deal, which is scheduled to keep Messi at the Nou Camp until 2016, is believed to eclipse the €10m net wage Cristiano Ronaldo is paid by Barcelona's rivals Real Madrid.

Messi's contract also contains a buyout clause that would force any prospective buyer to pay €250m to lure the 22-year-old away from Barça should they wish to do so without negotiating with the La Liga champions

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