Cristiano Ronaldo's memory lingers as Real Madrid begin life without him
Cristiano Ronaldo is gone but he is not forgotten and won’t be unless Real Madrid continue to win as comfortably as they did in their first La Liga match without him on Sunday.
The five time Ballon d’Or winner — who helped Madrid to three consecutive Champions League titles and scored 450 goals in 438 games across nine seasons at the Bernabeu — left Madrid for Juventus during the summer, and his absence is notably felt both in the dressing room and outside of it too.
Real Madrid’s 2-0 win over Getafe on Sunday night was watched by the smallest home crowd for a match in La Liga at the Bernabeu since their last match before Ronaldo’s arrival in 2009, and after the season-opening victory his name was still verymuch in the air.
At 33, there had been talk of Ronaldo’s inevitable decline creeping in for years but his 44 goals last season fired Los Blancos to their 13th European Cup triumph and his change of position from winger to pure No. 9 made him even more prolific, something previously considered unimaginable. With no new signings to replace the reigning Ballon d’Or holder, questions were asked as to who would replace the Portugal captain.
And those questions continue to be asked despite the fact that the players and management are keen to focus on the players that are in the squad. Comparisons to the Madrid legend are not going to help anyone either and that’s something stalwart defender, Nacho, is keen to point out.
“As for [Gareth] Bale, he does not have to follow Ronaldo’s path. [Ronaldo] marked a time here,” Nacho said when asked about whether it would be Bale stepping up in place of the departed star. “Bale is a very important player for us and has won many things here and does not have to prove anything to anyone.”
There has been much ruminating over what is Florentino Perez’s strategy. Are they saving up to make a run at signing Neymar or Kylian Mbappe next summer? Have they suddenly become thrifty when money was but an object in previous eras? Is there a concreted effort to become more Spanish and to start young up-and-comers as they transition away from the Zinedine Zidane Ronaldo era?
If the last option is the case, one player who has benefitted from the arrival of Julen Lopetegui is Dani Ceballos and he is ready to put the past behind him too.
“Cristiano isn’t here, he isn’t going to help the team,” the 22-year-old said. “What he says isn’t going to affect us. We know what Lopetegui wants from us. We practice it in training and we try to bring it onto the field.”
Ronaldo’s relationship with Perez was never truly hostile but neither exploding with effervescence. The former Manchester United star arrived the same summer as the club president began his second tenure (as well as Kaka and Karim Benzema).
The back-and-forth when it came to Ronaldo’s pay increases and the displays of respect he felt he deserved eventually got too weighty for their relationship to take, hence the departure for Serie A. That has led to some interesting comments from Ronaldo in the aftermath without ever directly addressing the obvious issues that were there.
Juventus is “different, everyone is very friendly,” Ronaldo said after joining up with his new side in the earliest opportunity he had to take aim at the club where he was respected but never truly adored.
Sergio Ramos, another massive personality in the Real Madrid dressing room, responded by saying: “We’ve always felt like a family here. I don’t know where his shots were aimed — the dressing room, the hierarchy… But for us in the dressing room being part of a family has been key to our success.”
It is a tough balancing act in which the players have to partake. They have to be diplomatic and avoid disparaging a club legend or worse, getting embroiled in a public spat with a player in a different league and a former teammate with whom they achieved incredible success. But they also have to look out for the interests of the team first, and that’s why putting the past behind them is the best way forward.
“At the end, he left, we have a great team and we are working well and you saw that on the field today,” Marco Asensio, another player earmarked as a potential Ronaldo replacement, said.
Ronaldo’s ghost will linger over the Bernabeu for years to come, and more so if Real Madrid can’t find their groove under Lopetegui in the coming weeks. The win over Getafe was a start but the only tonic is for the players to stick to the party line and let bygones do their thing while they do theirs.
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