Clairvoyant Ronaldo eyeing di Stefano's Real pedestal

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrating one of his two goals against Sporting Gijon to help cement Real Madrid's position atop Spain's La Liga.
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrating one of his two goals against Sporting Gijon to help cement Real Madrid's position atop Spain's La Liga.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • To the many qualities the voters for the next winner of the Ballon d'Or are considering as they contemplate the candidacy of Cristiano Ronaldo, they might add clairvoyance.

Obliged to explain a slump in his scoring form - he had scored just the seven in his previous 10 matches - when he attended a ceremony to mark his new contract with Real Madrid, the Portuguese forward promised: "Next week the goals will come back."

That was the week before the first Madrid derby of the season, away at Atletico.

The soothsayer registered a hat-trick, one way to start paying back a little on a five-year deal that will earn him more than €100 million (S$151.2 million) even before bonuses.

The goals eased Ronaldo, 31, past new milestones, including overtaking the Real icon Alfredo di Stefano as the most prolific scorer in Real versus Atletico contests.

Last Saturday, Ronaldo continued his rich vein of form by scoring twice in Real's 2-1 home win over Sporting Gijon, which gave him his eighth goal in four league games to go top of the scoring charts with 10 strikes this season.

On Saturday, at the Camp Nou, he has an opportunity to reel in another di Stefano record.

Di Stefano scored 18 times against Barcelona, whom he nearly joined before Real stole into a hiatus in negotiations and altered the course of both clubs' history.

Ronaldo has 16 clasico goals and enters his 26th so-called super derby with Real seven points above Barcelona (before the Catalans play Real Sociedad early this morning, Singapore time) in the table.

The common assumption about Ronaldo is that the man against whom he measures his status most consciously is Lionel Messi, the Argentinian Barcelona were not so careless about recruiting as they were, 60-odd years ago, with the Buenos Aires-born di Stefano.

But as Ronaldo prepares for the latest handover of the Ballon d'Or from Messi for his 2016 achievements - European champion with Real and Portugal - it is di Stefano who sets as relevant a yardstick for enduring excellence.

There has not been an athlete as capable of mastering the pitch in 21st-century football as di Stefano was in the lower-tempo sport of the 1950s and early 1960s.

But the deal Ronaldo signed puts him on a parallel course to Real's greatest player and invites comparison about how well he can manage his longevity.

Di Stefano retired just shy of 40, his Real career having ended acrimoniously when he neared 38.

He was, like Ronaldo, phenomenally fast. When the pace diminished, he resorted to making precise passes from deep and pressing rivals energetically.

An alteration to Ronaldo's game has been detectable lately - a greater readiness to occupy a centre-forward position rather than invite the ball played in front of him into wide channels, once his preferred default as a peerless counter-attacker.

When he announced his new contract, Ronaldo said: "I want to play until I am 41."

The question is whether he will last that long, to end his career as di Stefano's 21st-century equivalent.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'Clairvoyant Ronaldo eyeing di Stefano's Real pedestal'. Print Edition | Subscribe