Cristiano Ronaldo cast a long shadow over Real Madrid’s incredible four Champions League in the last five years. He scored 70 of their 163 goals in that time – that’s 43 per cent.
Lionel Messi has already said what everyone is thinking. ‘Real Madrid have one of the best teams in the world with great players but the fact that Ronaldo is not there takes something away from them,’ he told Radio Catalunya at the start of the month. ‘The fact that he is now at Juventus make them one of the clear favourites to win the Champions League.’
So do the Real Madrid players agree? Are Juve now stronger favourites than them? No chance. They have been Champions League holders for 843 days and counting and winning it now without him represents their biggest challenge yet, but it’s one they all want to accept.
Cristiano Ronaldo salutes ahead of Juventus’s Champions League game in Valencia
He won four Champions Leagues at Real Madrid and defined an era of phenomenal success
It’s true in each of the four tournaments won while he was at the club Ronaldo had top-scored. He finished with 17 the year they won the ‘Decima’ and he got 16 in 2016, 12 in 2017, and 15 last year. Can they reach the June 1 final at Atletico Madrid’s Metropolitano Stadium without him? Atletico coach Diego Simeone has, like Messi, had his say telling Spanish paper El Mundo he felt his team were now closer to Real Madrid after the sale of their all-time top scorer.
But Ronaldo did not always perform in the finals. He was below par 12 months ago in Kiev and it was Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema who got the goals that won the game. Those two, and most notably captain Sergio Ramos, want the chance to prove it was not all about him.
Far from seeing it as a handicap they are looking upon his departure as a tremendous incentive – what better way to prove themselves. Ramos sums up that spirit. For years he was happy for Ronaldo to take the plaudits even though he was often the driving force behind the victories. Now he wants a post-CR7 European Cup.
Ahead of their opening Champions League clash of the season, against Roma at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, Ramos was asked if he agreed with the assertion of Eusebio Di Francesco that Real Madrid have gained in certain aspects without Ronaldo.
He said: ‘Cris gave us many things but he took other things away [from our game]. Not many things, but certain things. He marked a whole era at Real Madrid but that is the past and we cannot live by what he achieved. The hole he left has been filled by other players.’
And Bale can match Ramos’ determination to win another Champions League with Ronaldo, either on the losing side or watching at home having fallen short at Juventus.
It was classic Ronaldo last May when having had his thunder stolen during the game by Benzema and particularly by Bale, who scored twice, he then hogged the limelight in the post-match interview by announcing he was probably leaving Real Madrid. The trophy had not even been handed over but suddenly the post-match focus on Bale’s brilliant goal turned to Ronaldo again.
But the likes of Sergio Ramos (right) are desperate to prove they don’t need him to win
Real Madrid’s squad train ahead of their opening clash in Europe this season against Roma
Bale’s record in Champions League finals is every bit as extraordinary as Ronaldo’s – three goals plus a penalty in a shootout, in four wins with no defeats. Now is his chance to prove over the course of an entire campaign he can carry the team.
REAL MADRID’S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FIXTURES
Sep 19 v Roma (h) 8pm
Oct 2 v CSKA Moscow (a) 8pm
Oct 23 v Viktoria Plzen (h) 8pm
Nov 7 v Viktoria Plzen (a) 8pm
Nov 27 v Roma (a) 8pm
Dec 12 v CSKA Moscow (h) 5.55pm
Marco Asensio knows that were Ronaldo still at the club he would not even be in the team. Judging by his two scorchers against Croatia on international duty last week, playing regular first-team football suits him. Ramos is keen for his young compatriot to thrive as emerges from Ronaldo’s shadow. ‘I have a special relationship with him,’ he said on Tuesday.
‘Sometime he reminds me of myself because I arrived at this club when I was very young. He’s in the team now and he has an important role to play. I’m convinced he is going to mark an era at this club.’
Another in Ramos’s ‘Spanish club’ is Isco, and the captain believes there is long-term changing of the guard slowly taking shape in the Madrid dressing room. Ronaldo has gone and there are others who are also in their last seasons for the club.
Luka Modric and Marcelo had a very senior role in the dressing room as the team won those three straight Champions Leagues but the Croatian midfielder is 33 and Marcelo,30, has shown signs of decline – at least in terms of his defensive play – that might not be easily reversed. Isco and Asensio must step up and take responsibility in the new order – alongside Raphael Varane who has returned from Russia transformed by winning the World Cup and now ready to be a leader.
Gareth Bale (left) and Marcelo are another two big players with points to prove post Ronaldo
Bale scored an incredible goal in last year’s final yet was still overshadowed by Ronaldo
They all want the league title – Madrid finished 17 points behind Barcelona last season. But the Champions League remains Real Madrid’s competition.
In footage from the film ‘In the heart of the 13th’, which goes behind the scenes of Real Madrid’s Champions League campaign last season, Isco is seen talking to club president Florentino Perez in the dressing room. He says: ‘Presi, how easy do we do this, man!’ He then turns to club ambassador Roberto Carlos and says: ‘Roberto, I want a Copa del Rey. So many Champions Leagues, so many.’
He then says: ‘I have won Copa del Rey but it’s out of date because there is now a different king!’
Speaking on Tuesday Ramos said: ‘He was joking of course. Any player would pick another European Cup over three Copas del Rey.’
It’s still the competition they most love. It might be 843 days holding on to it but there is no desire to let go just yet.
‘Another era, the same challenge’ was Diario AS’s headline on Wednesday morning. Cristiano Ronaldo down the road in Valencia ready for his Champions League debut for Juventus will be thinking the same. Real Madrid players are determined that it will be them and not him smiling at the end of the season.
The Madrid press focused on Ramos in the build-up to the game against Roma (left), while the Italian papers screamed ‘Come on, Ronaldo!’ in excitement at his first Juve game in Europe