Andy Mitten

Relentless Ronaldo saps Barca hope

Andy Mitten

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Barcelona fans packed the bars close to Camp Nou before Saturday's late game against the Basques of Athletic. They crowded around screens, raffish types near Collblanc, families and tourists on the other side of the stadium near Diagonal.

They hoped that an in-form Osasuna side who'd lost just two of their 15 home games could stop Real Madrid winning. Jose Mourinho's side had started to wobble, dropping points against Malaga and Villarreal which allowed a relentless Barça to reduce Madrid's lead from 10 to six points. There was a fair chance that they would fail in Pamplona against a side who'd beaten Barca, a side who loathed Madrid.

Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't do fair chances. The game was six minutes old when the right footed player provided a perfect left-footed cross for Karim Benzema to volley in. Marca compared it to Arnold Muhren's ball for Marco van Basten's volley in Euro '88. The goal was greeted by silence in the packed bars of Barcelona.

Madrid were ahead and never looked back as they annihilated Osasuna. Ronaldo was again the best player on the pitch and scored two of his own to take his total to 47 from 44 games for Madrid so far this season. The first, a curving shot from 35 metres, was so improbable it resembled a goal scored in a computer game. Andres Fernandez, one the best goalkeepers in Spain this season, barely saw it.

Ronaldo's second was less spectacular, coming  from a direct free-kick. About time too, for he'd failed to score with his previous 39 free-kicks this season. But he never failed to keep taking them, despite Xavi Alonso being more than competent from dead balls. Ronaldo does have faults, but then even diamonds have imperfections.

Both Ronaldo's goals were met with silent cursing in Catalonia. According to Cules, Ronaldo is the twin Portuguese devil in a satanic pact with Mourinho, yet he more than anyone else set the mood of the 88,000 crowd in Camp Nou, deflating it by his brilliance. Barca won 2-0 against an exhausted Athletic, but Madrid had also won.

Ronaldo has scored 101 goals for Madrid in two and a half seasons after becoming the first star player Manchester United sold with reluctance since Mark Hughes in 1986. The Madrid press claimed Real had plucked David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy from Old Trafford, but Sir Alex Ferguson had decided that they were surplus to requirements, not Madrid's manoeuvrings.

Ronaldo was different. He was the best player in the world in 2008 and Ferguson wanted to keep him for as long as he could, but his team-mates were chiding him about Madrid for two years before he left. He went along with the jokes.

Perceptions can be misleading. Ronaldo is flash and arrogant, right? A big timer who loves himself? The players who shared a changing room with him for six seasons at Old Trafford will tell a different story. He was guilty of being all the above in small doses, yet he remained hugely popular because other qualities on and off the field outweighed his pretentious foibles that lead to his self-assured arrogance. In dressing room parlance, he was considered "a good lad" who moaned too much about the weather on those rare Manchester days when the sun didn't show its face for less than eight hours.

Ronaldo also remains hugely popular with United fans who still sing 'Viva Ronaldo', their soundtrack to the 2007-08 season, at most games. Real Madrid fans are seeing an even better player than the one who lit up Manchester, one who scores more goals, dominates more games. Some Madrid watchers claim this will be known as 'The Ronaldo Era' at the club, yet it's not an era in which Madrid have come close to matching their past silverware hauls.

For all his personal achievements, Ronaldo has only one Spanish cup to his name, a victory decided by a glorious extra-time header against Barcelona in Valencia a year ago. It was one of the rare occasions that he's been in a team which has overshadowed one starring Lionel Messi, yet Ronaldo has scored more league goals than Messi this season - 37 versus 36 so far - just as he did last season with 41 league goals in 34 matches - a new record for a season in Spain. Arguments rage over who is better, with Messi supporters pointing out that Messi would easily be leading the race for the Pichichi if penalties weren't included (Ronaldo has 10 to Messi's four) - and Ronaldo fans will point out that penalties are included.

Like the teams they lead, the pair dominate the scoring charts and they're the best two players in the world by a distance. Ronaldo has never been able to match Messi's trophies, but with eight games to play in Spain, Madrid are set for a first title since 2008. And they're about to do it by breaking all goalscoring records. By the time Madrid scored their fifth on Saturday, Barca fans were leaving for Camp Nou.

That fifth was Madrid's 100th league goal so far this season, with Ronaldo's striker partners Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema both in sublime form. They have eight games to surpass the 105 goals scored by Barcelona in 2009, eight games to go for Spain's all-time record of 107 set by John Toshack's Madrid in 1989-90. With Ronaldo playing as he is, Barcelona fans might not want to raise their hopes of any further shocks too much.

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