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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo's return could not have come soon enough for Real Madrid

European and Spanish champions have been slow starters before, and they have tough fixtures coming up

Cristiano Ronaldo remains Real Madrid's most important player, says manager Zinedine Zidane. Sergio Perez / Reuters
Cristiano Ronaldo remains Real Madrid's most important player, says manager Zinedine Zidane. Sergio Perez / Reuters

One of the great appeals of football is its unpredictability, though the Uefa Champions League results this week were largely predictable, with the biggest, richest clubs winning comfortably.

Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich all won 3-0 at home. Chelsea’s 6-0 win over Qarabag and Paris Saint-Germain’s 5-0 win at Celtic made people question the logic of the Champions League group stage, but there have always been big scorelines in European competition and surprises remain, like CSKA Moscow’s 2-1 win at Benfica.

Spain’s Primera Liga is too often dismissed for its predictability, with Barcelona and Real Madrid so dominant, yet the success of other Spanish teams is an indicator of the quality of the majority of the Spanish top flight. Still, nobody expected Madrid to draw their opening two league games.

Not the Real Madrid who won the Primera Liga and the Champions League in June and who looked to be a class above Manchester United and Barcelona when they played Super Cup matches only last month.

Madrid were rightly venerated and celebrated for their brilliance, yet they have drawn at home to a Valencia side which finished 12th last season and Levante who won the second division and stuck with the players who got them promoted.

While Madrid’s failings have been magnified and highlighted, both Valencia teams should be credited for their excellence and attacking intent in the Bernabeu.

Zidane’s side were missing the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo, 32, who made his first start of the season in Wednesday’s Champions League match, scoring twice to extend his record as all-time leading Champions League goalscorer to 107.

Ronaldo remains Madrid’s best player, “the soul of the team” according to new signing Dani Ceballos, and, recharged, hopes to be as effective this season as last. He will need to be. Madrid are already four points behind Barca.

Highlights from Madrid's win over Apoel

There were high hopes that Gareth Bale could be the star in his absence, to be the man to get the breakthrough when Madrid needed a win. While Bale has started six games this season, he has been substituted in all. Fans have jeered him and worry that he misses too many games to injury to be as effective as they had hoped.

Teammate Toni Kroos, whose €25 million (Dh109.1m) fee three years ago was one of the biggest bargains in modern football, said that Bale did not deserve to be booed when he left the field on Wednesday after 83 minutes. Kroos, who hit the post in the final minutes against Levante, suggested that criticism “does not help anyone” but the German midfielder is not going to change the psyche of the ultra-demanding Bernabeu fans. And nor is Bale, 28, who set up Ronaldo for his first goal on Wednesday, a poor player.

More curious was the absence of another Madrid forward, Marco Asensio, who missed the game because of an infection contracted from shaving his legs.

Also read:

Zidane bemoans Madrid's lack of strikers but delighted to welcome back Ronaldo

Zidane, who insists on squad rotation and who kept Isco on the bench against Levante even though Ronaldo and Luca Modric were missing, did not blame bad luck as he said he was not happy with how his team played against Levante.

Madrid have been slow starters before, most recently in 2014/15 when they lost two of their opening three league games – a year Barcelona won the title.

They will likely overcome their stumble, though they could have done without their next opponents after a Champions League match being Real Sociedad, who have won all three of their opening league matches and sit joint top with Barca, having scored more goals than any other team.

The last time the teams met so early in the season was two years ago, and the San Sebastian side won 4-2. Or maybe that is exactly what Ronaldo et al need to stimulate their brilliance.