Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid are finally getting the best out of each other - their win over Atletico proves this

Pako Ayestaran
The Independent
Ronaldo celebrates with his team-mates after scoring Real's first: Getty
Ronaldo celebrates with his team-mates after scoring Real's first: Getty

There was a moment in the first half of the Madrid derby on Tuesday night when Real were only winning 1-0 and Atletico Madrid had the chance to level.

Diego Simeone’s side were sticking to their plan of keeping tight and trying to get in behind the backline, even after going down to Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal, and suddenly Kevin Gameiro seemed to be released with Antoine Griezmann to his left.

Raphael Varane very quickly stepped in to stop him, though, and subsequently break up play - as was the case for much of the night. It was a moment that summed up Atletico’s evening.

All night long the French defender and Sergio Ramos had worked well in stopping Gameiro and Griezmann higher up the pitch than normal and, as a result, Atletico’s chances were limited. They were being pressed between the lines, and repeatedly broken apart.

More than this, there was something even more fundamental hindering Atletico’s game which marked a real break from what they usually do. Put simply, they were not as intense. They were weak in the challenge, losing almost every single one-on-one.

That is something genuinely unbelievable for Atletico, and it’s difficult not to link it to their belief in this game, and the psychology around this tie. I have spoken before in this column about this dynamic, like how during my time at Liverpool we seemed to always beat Everton no matter the circumstances - a trend that has continued. So, a trend between Real and Atletico has continued, and Real once again beat their rivals in the Champions League.

It was more than just a lack of intensity, though, as this led to other problems for Simeone’s side. It’s usually so difficult to catch Atletico on the break but, in this game, Real were arriving in their box within three touches.

Of course, the other side of that is that Zinedine Zidane’s team genuinely looked a side to fear. They were simply outstanding. Real are of course a squad of great individuals but what stood out on Tuesday was how they worked as a team.

Ronaldo is now more of a team player (Getty)
Ronaldo is now more of a team player (Getty)

From the very beginning of the game, and especially throughout that first 15 to 20 minutes, Isco and Luka Modric completely controlled the match. They were setting the tempo, picking the moments to release players - like when Dani Carvajal got down the right for the first real attack of the game – and engineering Real’s superiority in the middle of the pitch. With Isco bringing energy and dynamism from his position at the top of Real’s 4-4-2 diamond, it proved to be the right approach.

Atletico couldn’t find the appropriate response. You could see they were worried; the team took too long on the ball, too ponderous, with Simeone trying different things that weren’t coming off. At the same time, while his substitutions didn’t work, Zidane’s did. Nacho, for example, brought great balance to the right flank.

Beyond that, of course, there was the contribution - and very quality - of Ronaldo.

Ronaldo guided Real to victory against Atletico with his 42nd hat-trick (Getty)
Ronaldo guided Real to victory against Atletico with his 42nd hat-trick (Getty)

It’s not easy to improve as a player once you reach your 30s - and whether the Portuguese actually has remains up for debate - but there’s no denying that Ronaldo has blossomed as a team player in recent years.

Beforehand, when at his physical peak, he was able to make chances on his own, to get the ball in the middle of the park and drive forward. There were probably too many individual actions, though, and he was too selfish.

Nowadays, he’s generally far away from the area where the game is being built, and it’s having a positive effect on him and his team-mates.

It allows them to build, and him to just get in the box and be a clinical striker, because his effectiveness is unprecedented. Look at Tuesday night. Three big chances and three big goals.

I think he’s been very intelligent about using his abilities in that way, approaching the game with his strengths even if his physical power is not as it was, but also very tactically intelligent.

Ronaldo celebrates with team-mates after scoring his third (Getty)
Ronaldo celebrates with team-mates after scoring his third (Getty)

There were a lot of times in the last 15 minutes when Lucas Vazquez was getting involved and creating and Ronaldo was so visibly gesturing to him that he would cover him. I’m genuinely not sure we would have seen that in the past. He and Real are now getting the best out of each other.

The decision to rest him for some league games has also been important, and shows he’s been smart for his career, but also shows the strength of the Real squad.

This is the real difference between the sides.

Simeone, of course, showed in his press conference that he’s going to battle and I think one of his strengths is true character in the face of adversity. He will bring everybody together to try the impossible and overturn a 3-0 deficit next Wednesday, but it’s difficult to see it happening.

Atletico will need Real to have an off-day, to be complacent, but that is unlikely to be the case. Instead, they look like a squad focused on making history this season, with a forward who continues to prove his critics wrong.

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