The biggest roar of the night in the Bernabeu did not follow Real Madrid's solitary goal in their laboured 1-0 victory over FC Zurich on Wednesday. The stadium was roused from slumber to appreciation 20 minutes from the end with the introduction of a substitute. It was not that the game needed changing. Real had taken the lead in the 20th minute through their tigerish in-form Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain and the Swiss side were so trenchant in defending that the prospect of them crossing into Real's half, let alone scoring, was remote. Most seemed content to wait until the final whistle in the hope of swapping shirts with the Real substitute.
That man, the player whose appearance sparked the roar, was Cristiano Ronaldo. He may have only signed in the summer, but Real have missed him more than they had hoped following his 10 game, 55 days absence since he injured an ankle against Marseille on September 30. The substitution was an opportunity for the world's most expensive player to get some minutes ahead of El Clasico on Sunday night against Barcelona at Camp Nou. He showed tricky footwork, but was unable to add to the scoring as Real moved within touching distance of qualification from Champions League Group C. The Spaniards benefited from Milan and Marseille drawing 1-1 and a point in their final game against Marseille will be enough.
"It's good to be back," said the Portuguese winger. "It was very disappointing to be injured for so long, but my motivation is high. I want to be as strong as I was before." Despite enjoying their third 1-0 success in a row, Real remain unconvincing, a fact noted by coach Manuel Pellegrini. "The team may be a little too anxious and may be feeling pressure due to the criticism we've received and the fact that some aspects of our game don't seem to work," revealed the Chilean. "I think there's a lot of merit in being group leaders. We don't play badly, but we don't play entertaining football. We are worried because this is not how we want to play. I don't like this from a coaching standpoint. We don't seem to loosen up. On the other hand, we are solid in defence. We nevertheless lack creativity, mobility and luck. We had many chances on goal tonight."
Such honesty is laudable, but the inference is clear: Real are already top of the Primera Liga. When they finally click, they will be a supreme side. Pellegrini also attempted to rein in some of the hyperbole around Barcelona. "Statistically speaking, Barcelona don't score more goals than we do and we don't concede more than them," he said. "They play differently, but they have a clear concept of their game and we are looking for a style different from that of recent years. I don't believe the style of both teams is that different."
There are obvious positives for Real. Boasting attackers like Raul, Kaka, Ronaldo, Higuain and Benzema is a huge privilege for Pellegrini. Raul and Kaka have scored 90 Champions League goals between them and such experience will be vital if Real are to proceed beyond the last 16 in the Champions League, something they have not done for the past four seasons. Despite being marked by two men, Kaka played his part in everything which was good from Madrid in the first half against Zurich.
Against a side frightened of showing the adventure that earned them victory in Milan, he unlocked the door to set Higuain on goal for the game's only goal and has settled without being spectacular - a situation Benzema would like to be in. The French striker has shown encouraging glimpses, but little more to justify his ?30million (Dh165m) fee. Judged on form, he will be the Real player to miss out against Barca if Ronaldo starts.
It is a measure of Ronaldo's impact so far that most Real fans are fervently waiting to see him above all walking out of the Camp Nou tunnel on Sunday. @Email:email@example.com