Cristiano Ronaldo did not have a happy afternoon in Real Madrid’s 0-0 La Liga draw with Malaga last Saturday. And there’s a growing feeling that suggests Madrid might just be considering cashing in on a hugely valuable, but fast depreciating asset.
Ronaldo was responsible for 14 of Madrid’s 31 shots on goal over the 90 minutes against Malaga, but he hit the target only twice as Los Blancos were held goalless at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for the first time in 56 games.
Saturday’s game, which included Ronaldo being booked in injury time for trying to convert a cross with his hand, was the latest in a frustrating start to 2015/16. He has scored eight goals in nine games - and is the early [joint] top scorer in both La Liga and the Champions League. But all of those eight goals came bunched together in hammerings of Espanyol and Shakhtar Donetsk - and all were either penalties or close range finishes.
Ronaldo has now found the net in just two of his nine club and country appearances this season. After 26 unsuccessful shots over his last three games, this is his worst goalscoring start to a La Liga season in five years.
Recent weeks have also seen Madrid coach Rafa Benitez get caught up in a media tizzy over whether he really rates Ronaldo sufficiently highly or not. Benitez finally admitted last week that Cristiano is the team’s only “undroppable” player, but the feeling persists that the relationship between the two is not so cosy.
Rafa presumably knows that although Ronaldo had his best goalscoring season ever last year, and has won the last two Ballon D’Or awards, it’s been a couple of years since he has decided a really big game for club or country. You have to go back to when the Portugal captain almost single-handedly dragged his country to the World Cup in November 2013’s play-offs. He scored a record 16 goals as Madrid won the 2014 Champions League, but in the knock-out games Gareth Bale, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema were all more important to the team’s victories. His memorable La Liga clinching strike for Madrid at the Camp Nou was back in 2012.
Ronaldo has always thrived in a team built around him - through his last years at Manchester United and his first six seasons at the Bernabeu. Jose Mourinho’s Madrid side was all about being solid and getting Ronaldo on the ball in space anywhere inside the opposition half. The superstar would then often beat a few players through pace and power before hammering the ball to the net from 30 yards.
After a couple of seasons of fitness issues, Ronaldo is a different type of player. Now he hangs around close to goal waiting for teammates to serve him up chances. This is not a particularly controversial description of Ronaldo’s current strengths - he himself appears to agree.
“Before I was bad and now I am good because I have scored eight goals in two games,” Ronaldo said after the recent Shakhtar game. “My teammates trust in me, they give me more passes, and from these passes I score goals.”
This suggested the 30-year-old is pretty realistic about where his game is currently at. However, in modern football a goal poacher, even a superbly clinical goal poacher, is a luxury for teams to carry. And a goal poacher who is not scoring is a real liability for any side.
Any questioning of Ronaldo’s value counts as heresy for many Madrid fans - but even the usually supportive local press have started to worry. Marca’s concerns have been especially strong. A piece on Monday showed that so far this season he has converted just 10.41% of his shots at goal, down from 21.52% last season.
“At no stage of his six-year Real Madrid career has Cristiano been this profligate on a sustained basis,” the critical report concludes. “The comparison with previous campaigns is proof that something is not quite right. No matter what the scoring charts say, right now the Portuguese ace is just not the same lethal beast that we have grown used to and it is costing 'Los Blancos' points.”
Regular Madrid media watchers know that such Marca stories do not exist in a vacuum. The recent Sunday Times report which claimed that Paris Saint Germain were readying a €150 million offer for Ronaldo next summer, along with a €20m after tax annual salary, was also worth taking notice of - especially as it was written by a reporter very close to Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes. There have also recently been more of the regular British media stories which claim that Manchester United would welcome back their former player.
Such speculation usually comes out around the time contract extension talks are expected. Ronaldo’s current deal at Madrid runs until 30 June 2018 (when he will have recently turned 33). That agreement was not easily reached - with Ronaldo himself memorably claiming to be “sad” at a key moment during two full years of negotiations.
Selling Ronaldo would be a huge call for anyone to make, and a move would have to be handled very delicately. But in the end it must be a business decision - and mutually beneficial for all involved. The €343 million that PSG are willing to spend, would be €343 million Madrid would save, as Blancos club president Florentino Perez surely knows.
Perez loves taking such tough business decisions, and is thought to be keen to promote 'his' newer, younger galacticos in Bale and James Rodriguez. Rafa might enjoy not having to build his team fully around just one player. Mendes would benefit from a final big money transfer. Ronaldo himself has never really felt unconditional love from the Bernabeu. Both PSG and United want to spend big on a superstar.
Admittedly, there’s a lot of maybes in that last paragraph. But the idea of a big money move for Ronaldo next summer is starting to make quite a lot of sense.