Real Madrid proved capable of winning a title without Cristiano Ronaldo by edging Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final. While that was an impressive result, they can not expect to replicate it in the Champions League semifinals against reigning champions Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo has missed three weeks of action due to a combination of leg injuries. It's left his status for the opening leg against Bayern on Wednesday up in the air, and although he's been training on a normal basis, the club hasn't committed to him playing.
Matt Barlow of the Mail Online passed along comments from Real manager Carlo Ancelotti, who noted the progress the forward has made but made it clear the focus is on the second leg:
Cristiano has trained normally. We will have another test for him to be sure and after that we will make a decision. He is motivated to play in the semi-final.
It is something that's very important for any player. He will play if there are no problems for sure. If there's a risk, he will not play, that's clear. This is an important match but the decisive match is next week.
A message the Portuguese international posted on Twitter could serve as a hint as to whether or not he will play:
Though part of the uncertainty is undoubtedly linked to Real wanting Ronaldo all the way back to full strength before returning, there's likely some gamesmanship as well. Keeping Bayern in the dark about his status for as long as possible is a mental edge, if nothing else.
That's because Ronaldo is the ultimate game changer. He's the one player Bayern, the defending champions, will need to keep tabs on throughout both matches in order to reach another final.
Make no mistake, Los Blancos feature no shortage of attacking depth. Gareth Bale was tremendous in the Cup final against Barcelona, Isco has made major strides during the current campaign, Angel Di María is an outstanding playmaker, and the list goes on.
Yet, when the going gets tough as it's surely going to against the Bavarians, Ronaldo is the player capable of changing the complexion of the entire matchup by taking over the game.
His numbers from Champions League play this season illustrate that elite form. He's scored 14 goals and chipped in three assists across eight appearances in Europe's top club competition. No other player has more than 10 goals in the tournament.
Which club will advance to the Champions League final?
When you're going up a club like Bayern, having a player capable of producing scoring chances with strong individual efforts is essential.
Bayern showed off their defensive form by holding Arsenal and Manchester United to three goals across four combined legs. The have also allowed just 20 goals in 31 Bundesliga matches as they are on cruise control toward another title.
Ronaldo is the player capable of attacking that back line with pace and creating space for that aforementioned strong cast of supporting characters or generating a scoring opportunity for himself. He demands a lot of attention, which has a positive trickle-down effect on the entire squad.
The Champions League provided remarks from Paul Bryan about exactly that:
A. @UEFAcomPaulB: Ronaldo's goals are obviously crucial to Madrid’s cause but so too is his mere presence. He terrifies opponents.— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 23, 2014
All things considered, it's tough to imagine Real Madrid advancing past Bayern Munich unless Ronaldo is able to make an impact in both matches. The German powerhouse remains the most complete team in Europe, leaving Real with a small margin for error.
Ronaldo playing in both legs obviously wouldn't be enough to guarantee success for Los Blancos, but it would provide a major boost to their chances, both on the physical and the mental side of the game.
He holds the key to success at a critical stage of the season for treble-contending Real Madrid.