Cristiano Ronaldo Gives Glimpses of Peak Ronaldo as Real Madrid Defeat Athletic

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2016

Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring during the Spanish league football match Real Madrid CF vs Athletic Club Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on February 13, 2016. / AFP / GERARD JULIEN        (Photo credit should read GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Cristiano Ronaldo raced toward the corner flag, tapping his chest twice before pointing his fingers high into the stands. This was another rendition of the celebration we'd seen roughly 300 times before, but concurrently, it felt a little different.

In contrast to those that had recently gone before it, Ronaldo's charge to the corner flag was faster. His roar was more forceful. The look of delight was greater. A fist pump was added to the routine. 

This felt like a point being made. 

Seconds earlier, Karim Benzema picked up a loose ball ahead of the halfway line and fed Ronaldo, moving infield from the left. The Portuguese's first touch with the outside of his right boot was velvet; the second with his left wrong-footed his opponent; the third with his right scorched into the top-right corner.

Three minutes on the clock, 1-0. 

Between the ball's first contact with Ronaldo's boot and its contact with the netting, only 3.13 seconds had passed. In those 3.13 seconds, the Real Madrid star covered 15 yards with only two touches, blazed a path through a pair of Athletic Bilbao defenders and let fly with one of those shots that sees his lower leg operate like a piece of high-impact machinery testing the ability of a new three-door hatchback to resist impact with a pole and meet European Union car-safety standards. 

This was peak Ronaldo, and he knew it. His team-mates knew it.

Everyone knew it.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

Once the celebration was complete and those inside the Bernabeu were back in their seats, immediately it struck you that what you'd just witnessed had felt like a flashback.

In more ways than one too.

In style, this was the sort of athletic and swagger-laced move that has increasingly felt like a lost art in the Portuguese. Since his highlight-rich run in the 2013-14 Champions League campaign, Ronaldo has been markedly different and has come to be associated with lesser adjectives. Indeed, jaw-dropping has been downgraded to efficient; unplayable has become simply elite; bazooka has become hunting rifle. 

This has all been part of an evolutionary period for Ronaldo, an inevitable phase all athletes experience. In it, the 31-year-old has largely maintained his staggering numbers, yet the manner of their accumulation has been less remarkable. For the first time in his Real Madrid career, Ronaldo has had limitations placed upon him, time the simple reason. It's meant his excellence has had to carry an altered essence: one-touch finishing, clever movement and exacting trailing runs. Penalty-area savvy.

Saturday's opener against Athletic was almost teleportation back to pre-evolution Ronaldo. And the identity of the opponent was significant too. 

Entering Saturday's clash, Ronaldo had 19 league goals for the season and 30 in all competitions, but a flat-track-bully tag was beginning to carry weight. Of his 19 league goals, eight had come against an awful Espanyol and only two had come against teams in the top half of the table. In the Champions League, all 11 came against the Group A whipping boys, Shakhtar Donetsk and Malmo. 

Here, though, he was at the heart of the decisive moments in a critical encounter. With his time-warp opener, he broke it open; with a well-taken second, he ended it. 

Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (L) celebrates after scoring during the Spanish league football match Real Madrid CF vs Athletic Club Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on February 13, 2016. / AFP / CURTO DE LA TORRE

Ronaldo's performance went beyond just goals, however.

Earlier in the season, when Real Madrid were losing their way and taking on a muddled identity, there was a detachment between the Portuguese and his team-mates. Emotionally, he looked despondent and uneasy; tactically, it was as if he were working to a different blueprint. 

In a forward setup that lacked clarity under Rafa Benitez, Ronaldo (and Benzema and Gareth Bale) seemed intent on getting in behind and getting in behind only. Pressed up against the opposition's defensive line, he rarely presented himself as an option to his midfielders. He rarely gave them an outlet. He seemed almost disinterested in interplay.

The result was a system so disjointed it bordered on being a 6-0-4 if ever Madrid's midfielders had to come deep to collect possession (you can read a tactical analysis here). 

But Saturday couldn't have been more different. 

Instead of playing as a secondary striker, Ronaldo genuinely occupied the left wing for the first time all season. "We were looking for that," admitted Zinedine Zidane afterward. Out wide, the three-time Ballon d'Or winner was consistently an outlet when Madrid won possession; once that possession was established and controlled, he was involved—presenting, passing, linking up, directing and creating. 

This was a glimpse of the old Ronaldo, the numbers backing up the visuals and sensations. In total, he racked up 60 touches and 43 passes against Athletic, per; when Madrid fell apart systematically against Paris Saint-Germain, Sevilla, Barcelona, Valencia and Villarreal, those numbers were 43 and 34, 45 and 32, 44 and 29, 40 and 34, and 47 and 33 respectively. 

Ronaldo's goals said much, but the performance as a whole might have said more.

"Red-hot," said Marca of the Portuguese. "Firing on all cylinders again."

It did feel like that, like old times. 

"You are here to assess if he is doing well or not," said Zidane. "But today he once again showed that he is, I don't know if I can say it, doing f-----g well."