Finding a way to stop Ronaldo is Rafael's toughest assignment
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring for Manchester Utd against Tottenham in 2003. Ronaldo rattled in 20 hat-tricks on the way to 182 goals for Real Madrid in 179 appearances.
So how do you stop him? That is what Alex Ferguson has to ask himself as he boards the flight to Madrid. After all the niceties, the spying missions and almost forensic background work, Manchester United now face the serious business of trying to keep a leash on Cristiano Ronaldo, superstar.
On the basis we are talking about someone who has rattled in 20 hat-tricks on the way to 182 goals for Real Madrid in 179 appearances, the problem for United is that this is about the closest thing there is in football to asking how to nail a jelly to the wall.
Ronaldo, one suspects, will cherish the opportunity to remind English football what it is missing and, before we even look at the possible tactics that United might employ, one thing is very clear: Rafael da Silva, on the right side of defence, might have to play the game of his life. He might have to do it twice, in fact.
Is he up to the task? United should be encouraged that the Brazilian is no longer the rash and impetuous player of old, still raw occasionally and not fully educated yet in the art of defence but also possessing the whippet-like speed and perseverance that makes him a hard opponent to shake off.
All the same it is difficult not to think Ronaldo-versus-Rafael represents a significant risk for Ferguson’s side unless they have other measures in place - and a clear plan about how to tackle the player they helped nurture into such a devastating destroyer of defences.
They could learn, for example, from the way Jurgen Klopp set up his Borussia Dortmund team when they played Madrid in the group stages. Klopp knew Ronaldo potentially had the beating of his team, so he worked out that the best way to stop him was to prevent him getting the ball as often as he was used to. And Madrid-watchers should be fully acquainted with the killer pass of choice at the Bernabeu: Xabi Alonso, in his own half, playing the ball right to left, medium to long distance, leaving Ronaldo free against the full back.
“Our plan was to take Xabi Alonso out of the game,” Klopp explains. “If Alonso plays the way he can play, it’s almost impossible to defend against Real Madrid.” Klopp instructed Mario Gotze to combine his usual attacking instincts with sticking close to Alonso in the space between the penalty area and centre circle where Madrid’s playmaker is so effective.
What Klopp is effectively saying is that it would be more effective to put someone on Alonso and deprive Ronaldo of his best source. Dortmund drew 2-2 in the Bernabeu, denied a win only by Mesut Ozil’s 89th-minute goal. Ronaldo did score in the Westfalenstadion but Dortmund won 2-1.
For the most part the tactic worked brilliantly.
Ferguson might also have picked up on the recurring pattern in the matches Madrid have lost 1-0 against Sevilla, Real Betis and Granada this season. On each occasion Madrid’s opponents have effectively allowed them to have the lion’s share of the ball, flooded their own half of the pitch to reduce the space around Ronaldo and then broken swiftly on the counter-attack. It has taken a while for Spanish teams to work it out but the formula against Madrid – unless it is Barcelona, who change their system for nobody – appears to be to play deep, defend with great resilience and commitment, crowd out Ronaldo and then hope, perhaps, for a bit of good luck.
The danger here is that Madrid do not keep the ball with the same refinement as Barcelona and that can sometimes encourage opponents to come out of defence and play with more adventure.
The alternative view is that Ronaldo might be inspired by the opportunity to be the star of the show. Ronaldo is not usually someone who finds the sense of occasion too much for him. “The best player in the world,” Rafael says. Stopping him will be the biggest assignment in the Brazilian’s professional life.