Cristiano Ronaldo returns for Real Madrid’s Champions League clash with Manchester City
Cristiano Ronaldo was kitted out in light blue at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground on Tuesday morning as los merengues prepared for the Champions League semi-final second leg against Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Light blue training top and light blue boots under a cobalt sky in the Spanish capital. It was as though the Portuguese was deliberately taunting City ahead of Wednesday’s decisive tie as he banished fears – and City hopes – that a hamstring injury would force him out of the game. Unfortunately for City, Ronaldo will be all white on the night when their Champions League fate is decided.
With Ronaldo forced to watch from the sidelines in Manchester last week, Real were unable to break down a City defence marshalled by the impressive Vincent Kompany as the two clubs played out a cagey 0-0 draw at the Etihad Stadium.
Without their talisman, Real suddenly appeared ordinary. Gareth Bale was no more threatening than your average left winger, while the introduction of the uninspiring Jese from the substitutes’ bench in place of the injured Karim Benzema highlighted the absence of stardust within Zinedine Zidane’s team whenever Ronaldo fails to take to the field.
But while conflicting messages from Iberia in the build-up to the return leg suggested he was either fit to play – Spanish media – or facing 20 days of rest – the Portuguese media – Ronaldo’s return to the training pitch on Sunday diminished the doubt before Zidane confirmed City’s worst fears by revealing that the 31-year-old would indeed be fit to face Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
“He (Ronaldo) is okay,” Zidane said. “He has recovered and he is 100 per cent. There is no risk.
“He has worked hard and looked after himself and he will be there. We are different when he plays and he is ready.”
Real are certainly different when Ronaldo plays and that is why his absence last week denied Zidane’s team the cutting edge the former Manchester United player provides.
With 16 goals so far in this season’s Champions League, Ronaldo had scored twice as many as his closest challengers – Luis Suarez, Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski – ahead of Bayern Munich’s second-leg tie against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday evening.
With Ronaldo in their armoury, it is little wonder that Real’s Champions League home record this season, going into the City fixture, has seen them score 18 goals, with none conceded, in their five outings to date at the Bernabeu.
But despite his personal milestones, Ronaldo insists that he still has more to achieve.
“It’s a privilege to know that I’m the leading goalscorer of all time in the Champions League,” Ronaldo told Uefa.com. “Obviously I feel very happy at having achieved that.
“It’s a special competition and a competition that Real Madrid love. I’ve been lucky enough to win it twice and obviously I want to win it more – hopefully again this year.”
City stand in Real’s way, however, and the lack of complacency within Real ranks can be traced back to last season’s semi-final exit at the hands of Juventus, whose 1-1 draw in the second-leg in Spain was enough to take them through the final, where they lost, against Barcelona.
A 1-1 draw will be enough for City on Wednesday and Ronaldo admits that Pellegrini’s team, who will be without the injured David Silva, have earned Real’s respect by progressing to the semi-finals for the first time
“Obviously, winning the Champions League is a priority for Real Madrid, but we know we face a difficult challenge and anything is possible,” Ronaldo said. “If Manchester City have made it to the semi-finals, it’s because they’re an excellent team.
“Knocking out Paris Saint-Germain is not an easy task, but they managed to do it and they are a team with very few weaknesses.”
Fear of failure is inescapable for Real, however. While only one point behind Barca and Atletico Madrid in the race for the La Liga title, there is little prospect of Zidane’s team overhauling both of their great rivals over the final two games of the season to win the championship.
So it is all about the Champions League and the pursuit of an eleventh European Cup in Milan later this month, which is why Zidane and his team are under such intense pressure to deliver.
“It will be a disaster if we don’t go through,” Zidane said. “But this will be a tougher game than the first leg because we know it will all be decided.
“City have good players, especially up front, but we’ll play our football as always.
“We won’t have the same game as the second leg against Wolfsburg (in the quarter-finals). We can’t think we’ll score two or three inside 15 minutes.
“We need to think about playing football, pressing high up and being intense. We also know we are playing a very difficult opponent who will make things difficult.
“It’s a different game and we know we’ll suffer from the first minute to the 90th. We need to be patient and calm.”