x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Ronaldo still Real's ringmaster

Manuel Pellegrini's charges break down an obdurate Xerez and while Madrid are setting a record pace, it is not yet good enough to catch Barcelona.

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo climbs above the Xerez defence to head home on Saturday night.
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo climbs above the Xerez defence to head home on Saturday night.

The Real Madrid circus rolled into Jerez, a city of 200,000 in southern Spain more famous for sherry than football. With support across Iberia, Real are the most popular club in Jerez - to the frustration of the 9,000 fans who traditionally watch local heroes Xerez.

That figure has been swelled this season as Xerez compete in Spain's top flight for the first time. They are having a difficult time in their maiden season among the big boys, with just two wins so far, but attendances have almost doubled and fans are determined to see the big name visitors before their probable relegation. A temporary stand was constructed ahead of the visit of Real, boosting the capacity to 21,000 to sate the huge demand for tickets. Many who bought tickets would describe themselves as Madrid fans - and they respected the memory of Luis Molowney, a former Real player and coach, who passed away earlier in the day.

A Xerez side which did not cost a Euro to assemble then held a team worth more than ?250 million (Dh1.25bn) for 64 minutes before losing 3-0, showing more evidence of the improvement since Nestor Gorosito, their new coach, took the helm last month. In their previous home game they had surprised fourth-placed Real Mallorca 2-1. Xerez created half chances on a substandard pitch which cut up easily and frequently frustrated Real's attacks, with Cristiano Ronaldo slipping before shooting wide in the first half. He cursed the broken turf, but kept control of his often suspect temperament.

Eventually, Manuel Pellegrini's charges broke down an obdurate Xerez, but it was not before a spectator ran on to the pitch with signs asking for justice for his murdered son. The Xerez players calmed him and he left to a standing ovation. Alvaro Arbeloa fired the whites ahead after 64 minutes, his first goal for the club since joining last summer. Real dominated and deft interchanges between Kaka and Ronaldo showed evidence of their prospering partnership - though Ronaldo remains the star of the show. Five minutes after Real had gone in front, he scored two goals in two minutes to finish off Xerez. The first was a bullet header from a Kaka cross, the second from an assist from the Brazilian. The pair celebrated like the close friends they have become.

"I am very pleased with my return," said the winger, who had completed a two-match suspension. "But what matters most is that the team won and we put pressure on Barcelona. We need to pay attention to ourselves and continue on the path we are on." "Ronaldo is a sensational player who gives us talent and goals," added teammate Marcelo, who played his 100th game in white. "He again proved decisive, but we are not just about one player. We are a united squad. It was difficult to take on a tough opponent on a pitch like that, but we cannot use that as an excuse. As kids we played on far worse surfaces."

Pellegrini was equally satisfied. "We can't demolish every opponent we meet," he said. "And scoring is tough no matter who the opponent is. What was important was that we maintained discipline. This team is now mature and ready to do battle for 90 minutes." Real, who today travel to France ahead of tomorrow's Champions League game against Lyon, have never before amassed so many points, 53, after 22 games in a league season. The plan which Florentino Perez put together last summer is working, the team are getting stronger by the month. There is only one problem, and a rather significant one: on the evidence seen so far Barcelona are even better.

amitten@thenational.ae