x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Real Madrid and Ronaldo silence the critics

Only last month, Real Madrid fans whistled derisively at Cristiano Ronaldo.

Only last month, Real Madrid fans whistled derisively at Cristiano Ronaldo. The dissenters made their point as Real laboured to a 1-0 victory over Osasuna in their first home game of the season, the negative reaction annoying the world's most expensive player.

"I don't agree with the boos," Ronaldo said. "It would be better if fans spent their energy that they use booing us in supporting us instead."

The mood was not positive, the frustration clear. But it was understandable. Jose Mourinho, the new manager, had only been in charge for two games. He asked for patience, but fans heard that for much of last season and - perhaps naively - they expected his side to hit the ground running. They did not want another season trailing Barcelona from the start.

Not that there was much justification for criticising Ronaldo. He scored 26 league goals in 29 starts in his first season in Spain. Throw in another seven in six Champions League games and you get the kind of freaky statistics only applicable to the planet's finest.

Happily for Ronaldo, much has changed since last month. Real top the league and Mourinho's side is coming together faster than anyone could have hoped. True, they have yet to meet a side from the top six, but they are pulverizing opponents week after week.

And in Europe, nobody could accuse AC Milan of being also-rans. Real brushed them aside with impunity last week.

At their heart is a Ronaldo displaying form unseen since he was voted the world's best player while with Manchester United in 2008.

Ronaldo leads the race for the Pichichi (Spain's top scorer award) with 10 goals from eight league games - twice as many as Lionel Messi, the holder. He has taken 62 shots at goal in the league, far more than any other player, despite the forward being a marked man: he has suffered 20 fouls, Messi just nine.

On Saturday night, Ronaldo scored four goals against Racing Santander in a 6-1 demolition. His efficiency was staggering: he had six shots, five of which were on target and four of which were goals.

Ronaldo is more confident than he has ever been in Spain. His passing, combination play and movement is reminiscent of that at Old Trafford and he is starting to make surging runs from behind defenders that are almost impossible to counter.

Ronaldo has become the focus for a young, stable, team. Youthful emerging talents like Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira look up to him, while Gonzalo Higuain and Xabi Alonso link up superbly with him.

Five players have started every league game, while five more have only failed to start in one or two. There is a togetherness and stability seldom seen in Madrid, where the media demand changes and the president influences selection. Until Mourinho.

The new man makes all the decisions, though some of the hardest ones were taken before he arrived.

He does not have to consider how many minutes Raul will play, or whether Guti is speaking to him or not - those two stalwarts have left the club. He has commanded absolute control and respect in just three months, partly because he has told his players that he knows how to beat Barca.

Players not getting a look in like Karim Benzema, Sergio Canales and Esteban Granero may not be as enamoured with the new regime, but the fans are, with the critics long since silenced by Mourinho's mantra of playing his best team all the time.

It will be interesting to see if they have the energy to compete on three fronts come March - the third starting tonight with a Copa Del Rey match against third division Real Murcia.

Some of the fringe players will expect to start, but then so does Ronaldo. And who could blame him, since it's so enjoyable playing for Real Madrid once again?