The extraordinary thing about Cristiano Ronaldo’s scintillating start to the season is that he is making the extraordinary ordinary. On Sunday night against Athletic Bilbao at the Bernabéu the Portuguese forward scored a hat-trick to take his tally to 13 league goals in just six league matches. It was the third time he had scored three or more goals in his last four domestic outings for the European champions. This is a player very much enjoying the best spell of his career.
"This year, I don't think there's much doubt,” said Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti after the match when questioned about whether his talisman would win the Ballon d’Or for a second year running. “I believe you can put on a bet.” The 29-year-old ended Lionel Messi’s hold of the prestigious trophy in January and his current form suggests he is in no mood to let it go 12 months on. Despite the incredible start by Barcelona, Messi and Neymar, nobody else is getting close to Ronaldo’s personal pride and joy.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. After limping through the end of last season with niggling injuries that also thwarted his World Cup in Brazil many reports suggested the former Manchester United man’s best days were behind him. A chronic knee injury that showed no signs of going away they said. When Ancelotti rested Ronaldo for a fortnight last month it seemed to only confirm reports that all was not well. As it was, it was a stroke of genius.
Ronaldo does not like to miss games. Sitting on the sidelines means a chance missed to add a goal to his ever-growing tally. A chance missed in edging closer to more records. He would not have liked staying at home watching on as his teammates crumbled to a 4-2 defeat at Real Sociedad that left Madrid in crisis. He has liked bouncing back, however. Seven goals in 14 matches have followed in all competitions with a couple of assists thrown in for good measure. Those goals have helped Ancelotti’s men to six wins from seven matches and they have helped silence Ronaldo’s doubters.
His latest treble helped Madrid to a comfortable victory against an out-of-form Bilbao side that sit joint bottom of La Liga just months after securing a Champions League finish last season. Two were provided by the right boot - and not the left - of Gareth Bale. The first came just minutes into the game as the Welshman swung over a cross that Ronaldo turned in at the far post. His second came after the break, and after Karim Benzema, who ended the match with a brace of goals, had doubled the hosts’ lead, when the Frenchman put Bale through down the right and he slid a low ball across for the Portuguese star to bundle home. His hat-trick had a hint of fortune about it, with Pepe’s effort taking a deflection off La Liga’s top-scorer and finding its way into the back of Gorka Iraizoz’s goal in the final minute or normal time.
Another match, another hat-trick. Another record etched into the club’s history books. The treble was Ronaldo’s 22nd in La Liga, taking him level with Madrid great Alfredo Di Stéfano and former Bilbao player Telmo Zarra. Messi is hot on his heels with 19. Sevilla are the club that have bore the brunt of Ronaldo’s treble-hitting ability, with the striker scoring three or more against the Andalusians on four occasions.
In scoring his hat-trick Ronaldo became only the second player to have scored three hat-tricks in the first seven matches of La Liga, with the other being Mariano Martín in the 1943-44 season. He is also the first player to score more than 12 goals in the first seven league matches since 1979 when Quini did it, and the first-ever Madrid player to do it, as well as being only the sixth player to do it of all time.
This is all with Ronaldo missing one of the seven matches at Anoeta.
He broke and equalled these records with something to spare.
Records and statistics aside, Ronaldo looks like he is enjoying his football as much as he ever has. His early opener against Ernesto Valverde’s men resulted in a pre-planned dance alongside James Rodriguez and Marcelo. A more notable example came in the second half and when he was searching for his hat-trick goal. Luka Modric played a superb ball through and Ronaldo was bearing down on Iraizoz but instead of shooting he squared the pass for Benzema to slot home. It was a smart team goal and it acted to lift some weight from the Frenchman’s shoulders following doubts over his starting role. Ronaldo is a player noted for his lethal selfishness in front of goal but this was a player also helping his team.
His team is also helping him. Records seem to tumble weekly in the presence UEFA’s Best Player in Europe and on the continent he is expected to surpass Raúl’s Champions League goalscoring record of 71.
His strike in the 2-1 victory over Bulgarian side Ludogorets last week edged him to within two of the target and he is expected to beat it at his current rate. That rate has seen him score a goal in every competitive game he has played in this season - and he shows no signs of slowing down.
His 13 league goals are only bettered by only two teams in Spain’s top flight. Leaders Barcelona have scored 19 and second-placed Valencia have scored 17 so far, while third-placed Sevilla have the same amount as the Portuguese star. Ronaldo has scored one more than last season’s Champions Atleti, and his hat-trick against Bilbao helped Madrid back above their city rivals.
Ancelotti is playing a big part in his star striker’s success. While Ronaldo had a communication breakdown with former manager Jose Mourinho, Ancelotti is a big admirer. "He's the best player that I've ever trained, without wanting to be disrespectful to anyone else,” he said before the match against Ludogorets. “He's very professional player, very hard-working. I think that the change I see in him is that he feels more at home in this shirt. He's a leader that doesn't speak much, but he leads through all the work he puts in”. That is quite an achievement given the array of talent the Italian has coached, from Zinedine Zidane and Kaka to Clarence Seedorf, Fillipo Inzaghi and Gianfranco Zola. The list goes on.
The next two league games should make interesting reading for Ronaldo.
After the international break Madrid return with a trip to Valencia to face a Levante side who have conceded 15 goals so far this season, the third worst defensive record in the league. After that Barcelona visit the Bernabeu for the first Clasico contest of the season. At present Luis Enrique’s men top the table without conceding a single goal.
Ronaldo is yet to finish a match this season without scoring one.
Something has got to give.
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