Cristiano Ronaldo always seemed to save his best for the Champions League. On Wednesday, Real Madrid will kick off the continental competition without the prolific Portuguese for the first time since 2008-09. And the big question is: where will the goals come from?
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner helped Los Blancos to four European Cup crowns in the past five seasons and netted an astonishing 105 Champions League goals in his nine seasons at the Santiago Bernabeu, including 15 last term as Zinedine Zidane’s side made it three in a row.
Zidane left at the end of May and although he has been replaced by Julen Lopetegui, Madrid did not go into the market for a big-name forward following Ronaldo’s move to Juventus. Instead, his former team-mates will have to step up in front of goal.
Karim Benzema already has four in La Liga, having hit just five in the whole Primera Division campaign last term, while Gareth Bale has netted three times in the league.
“It’s maybe a bit more relaxed (without Ronaldo),” Bale told the Daily Mail this week. “I suppose there is more of a team, more working as one unit rather than one player.”
With Ronaldo being the great goalscorer he is, there were sacrifices before. The Portuguese was virtually exempt from defensive duties for the most part and the rest of the team was expected to work at creating chances that he could finish.
But not now. Lopetegui’s football is more associative anyway and that suits both Bale and Benzema.
Asked about Ronaldo’s absence on Tuesday, the Madrid coach said: “We’re focused on the players who are here and the squad is prepared to fight for trophies – we are sure of that.”
In the meantime, Madrid’s players are desperate to prove they were no one-man team and some of the players are not happy at the nature of Ronaldo’s departure to join Juventus in July.
After completing his move to Turin, Ronaldo said: “Juventus is different. Here, everyone is a family.”
That remark did not go down well with his former team-mates at Real and captain Sergio Ramos said: “I don’t know if he is talking about the dressing room, about the board or whatever, but we have always felt like a family here and a big part of the success of the last few years is because we have worked as one.”
When he was asked about the award for Fifa’s The Best, Ramos said: “There are others with more marketing, but [Luka] Modric deserves it.” Which is what Barcelona players like Dani Alves always used to say to discredit Cristiano. Ronaldo later unfollowed the defender on Instagram.
And after the Portuguese posted a picture of himself on social media soaking up the sun on a yacht with the caption “Vitamin D”, Lucas Vazquez published an image of his own, alongside his partner and young child. And underneath, he wrote: “Vitamin F… amily”.
Even striker Mariano Diaz, who was signed from Lyon and returns to Madrid to take Ronaldo’s number 7 shirt, said in a radio interview: “I’m happy to wear the number worn by legends like Amancio [Amaro], Juanito, [Emilio] Butragueno, Raul…” And while it may have been an oversight on his part, it still seemed strange. When prompted by his interviewer, he then added: “And Cristiano Ronaldo, of course…”
For the type of football Lopetegui wants to play, Real Madrid might even be better off without Ronaldo, but it will be in Europe where the defending champions will most need to prove themselves in his absence. And the players are eager to show that is was not all about Cristiano.
Real kick off their campaign at home to Roma on Wednesday and will hope to be back in the Champions League final in Madrid, at Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium, on June 1st.
Whatever happens, their success in the competition will depend on how they can make up the goals previously scored by Ronaldo.