The gauntlet thrown down by Leo Messi for the first game of the season was a fairly modest one—just the two goals needed in Real Madrid’s campaign opener to keep up with the Argentinean in the ‘Pichichi’ top scorer chase.
Cristiano Ronaldo may have been thinking, as almost everyone else, that Real Betis were set to be as much a challenge to Real Madrid as 11 watermelons scattered strategically around the pitch. Therefore, the sight of his Barcelona rival getting a head start in the race to become top scorer was the main goal-getting incentive ahead of Sunday night’s clash in the Spanish capital.
That was the plan, anyway, until a battling Betis came out swinging at a steamy Santiago Bernabeu to put the Andalusians in front after 15 minutes. An absolute howler from Verdu seconds later would have doubled the lead and put a couple of goals from Ronaldo in the category of urgent necessities rather than nice-to-haves.
As it happened, during the opening quarter-of-an-hour before the Betis goal, Ronaldo was nowhere to be seen. This was despite much excitable talk of a free role on the pitch with a mission to cause carnage and destruction to opposition defenses.
It was a tactical approach that seemed to work with the Madrid man racking up six goals in preseason. However, once the real business of La Liga began, Ronaldo was to take succor from the familiarity of the left-hand touchline like a toddler clutching a comfort blanket.
After 20 minutes, a free-kick flew harmlessly over the bar. Some 90 seconds later, a cutback and run across the face of the box from Ronaldo, which looked destined to be Madrid’s equaliser, ended with a shot curling past the left post of Betis keeper, Stephan Andersen.
It was at this point, after Karim Benzema’s equalising effort, that Ronaldo began to drift to the centre-forward position alongside the Frenchman, with Mesut Oezil dropping deeper into midfield. But like a sweaty sleeper fiddling with a pillow on a hot summer night, the cramped space in front of the Betis back four did not seem to suit Madrid’s No. 7.
Ronaldo had apparently slapped himself a few times in front of the mirror at half-time, as a classic charge down the left flank ended in a shot smacking against the cross bar seconds after the restart. Soon after, the forward someone contrived to completely miss a cross from Marcelo.
There were signs of life from last season’s Madrid top scorer, but things were not quite clicking. Two more chances spurned at the midpoint of the second half from Ronaldo continued this narrative. The danger at this juncture with the Portuguese poacher is that frustration mounts and the footballer can revert to more extravagant efforts from long distance.
However, Ronaldo maintained the maturity that has seen his game improve immensely at Real Madrid by still trying to bring teammates into the attack. That nearly bore fruit with 15 minutes left on the clock, after an unselfish lay-off to Angel di Maria was blasted into the side netting.
But right to the very end of Madrid’s tight 2-1 win, nothing was quite coming off for Ronaldo in the Bernabeu, despite the footballer’s efforts. The same cannot be said for Isco making his league debut for Real Madrid.
The former Malaga man had already bagged an assist and was to grab the winner in front of some very relieved home fans just four minutes from time. Within seconds, supporters were singing the name of the playmaker. It took three years for fans to do the same for Ronaldo, one of the signs of what a peculiar institution Real Madrid can be, considering what the player has offered the capital city club since his arrival in 2009.
Both team and footballer will want to put the performance in a narrow 2-1 down to rustiness and a surprisingly brilliant Betis. However, whilst the league table will show Real Madrid on the same amount of points as Barcelona, one particular player is already leading his rival in another parallel competition.