BARCELONA • Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick against Atletico Madrid ended all doubts over who should win the 2016 Ballon d'Or, said Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane after the Portuguese entered derby folklore on Saturday.
Ronaldo's record-breaking treble in a 3-0 win took him to 18 goals in the derby fixture, one more than the late Real great Alfredo di Stefano, and helped his team open a four-point gap at the top of La Liga over nearest challengers Barcelona who, without the ill Lionel Messi, drew 0-0 with Malaga.
"I've never had doubts that Cristiano is the best and tonight closes the debate," Zidane said when asked if the performance had moved the 31-year-old closer to a fourth Ballon d'Or, the World Player of the Year award.
Atletico fans unfurled a banner before the final derby at the Vicente Calderon stadium before they move to a new venue that read "our legacy will be eternal".
However, it soon became clear that Ronaldo was intent on writing himself into the history books.
He almost gave Real an early lead when he leapt to direct a header at goal but saw the ball clawed off the line by Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Ronaldo's opening goal did not take long to arrive, though, as he smashed a 23rd-minute free kick that beat Oblak with the help of a deflection off Stefan Savic.
In the second half, the Portuguese beat the Slovenian from the penalty spot after being fouled by Savic and also guided a Gareth Bale cross in at the far post to complete his second hat-trick of the season.
Despite enduring his worst start to a campaign since joining Real, Ronaldo is now joint-top scorer in the league on eight goals alongside Barcelona pair Messi and Luis Suarez.
"Tonight Cristiano shut the mouths of those that doubted him," said Real winger Lucas Vazquez.
The club's full-back Marcelo said: "I have no words left to say about him, all you need to do is watch a replay of tonight's game".
Real are now unbeaten in 29 games in all competitions stretching back to April, but this was their best display in that run.
The performance was even more impressive given they were missing six key players through injury.
However, those absences forced Zidane to change his system to devastating effect, with Ronaldo playing as a centre-forward and the outstanding Isco in his natural role just behind the Portuguese.
A third league defeat in four games leaves Atletico's title credentials hanging by a thread.
Diego Simeone's men slip to fifth place and are now a massive nine points adrift of Real.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE