A senior member of Real Madrid’s coaching staff recently described Cristiano Ronaldo to this correspondent as a "perfectionist." Many exceptional sportspeople are that, and for a great many, especially in team events, the condition is far more frustrating than rewarding.
Rare are the periods when a state of flawlessness seems gloriously close. Ronaldo, currently, is approaching it. "It is impossible to do more than he is doing at the moment," said Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid’s head coach, after the 5-0 win at Levante Saturday afternoon. The serial compiler of hat tricks had just the two goals — the second after a thrilling slalom — from what was his club’s second successive "manita" in La Liga, a manita being the gesture for a 5-0 win, five fingers spread like a star from an open hand. That took Madrid’s goal tally to 30 from their eight matches so far; Ronaldo’s stake is at 15. Yet another personal record stuck itself to the long list he already owns: Nobody, post-World War II, has scored so many goals in Spain’s top division at this stage of a season.
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Ancelotti wants Ronaldo in perfect shape in a week’s time, when Barcelona visit the Santiago Bernabeu. The dilemma for the Madrid coaching staff on Friday had been how to best cultivate Ronaldo’s state of near-perfection with that date in mind. Should they rest him, minimize the risk of injury — Levante have some rugged individuals — ahead of the most taxing seven days yet of Madrid’s 2014-15, given they go to Anfield to play Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League three days before El Clasico? After all, Ronaldo had just come back from one of his typically sapping international tours of duty as figurehead, captain and galvanizer of an imperfect Portugal.
Ronaldo dislikes being rested when he is on a good run, his perfectionist appetites at their keenest. So he played. "He needs to carry on in the condition he is in, and will do everything to help that," said Ancelotti.
And on Ronaldo’s imminent horizon is a very perfect target. Later on Saturday, Barcelona defeated Eibar, 3-0, to retain their four-point advantage over Madrid at the top of the table and significantly extend their own remarkable statistic. Barca have now gone more than 12 hours without conceding a league goal.
Which makes Claudio Bravo just about the perfect new goalkeeper. The Chilean joined Barcelona in the summer, expecting to vie for the first-team spot with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, also new. Bravo has now played every domestic fixture and let in zero goals. Credit can be shared across the defense and midfield for that, although against Eibar he was required to show his alertness more than once when Barcelona’s line of four defenders misjudged their positions and Eibar pierced them on the counter-attack.
So somebody’s perfections will be stained on Saturday; either the impeccable, improbably hermetic defense of Barca, or the perfectionist, productive gallop of Ronaldo and his five-goals-a-game Madrid, who since they lost to Atletico last month have scored 25 times in five league fixtures.
Digit number one of the latest manita came from the penalty spot, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez fouled, Ronaldo converting. Number two arrived via before halftime, a Hernandez header. Were he to consult only his statistics, the Mexican forward would regard his start to his Real Madrid career — he is on loan from Manchester United — as close to perfect; three goals in 144 minutes so far. But the limited minutes reveal his role. He is a squad player, an impact substitute. Assuming Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale are fit for Saturday, Hernandez will not start against Barcelona.
Isco, scorer of Madrid’s fifth and excellent through the afternoon, will struggle to make Saturday’s XI, too. "We showed we have a good competitive squad, everyone performed well," said Ancelotti of a team missing Benzema, who had flu, Bale, who was on the bench with a minor muscular discomfort, and Sergio Ramos, who is on the way back from an injury. Even more satisfying than Isco and Hernandez’s showings were those of Toni Kroos, who set up the fourth goal, and James Rodriguez, who volleyed in Kroos’s lobbed passed. "We are establishing a good rhythm," said Ancelotti, "everyone did well."
Kroos and James should play their first El Clasico next weekend, and the value of their summer recruitment by Madrid will be instantly judged on what they contribute in the match that counts most of all, for Madridistas, Barcelonistas and outsiders intrigued by the pursuit of perfection.
Luis Enrique, the head coach of Barcelona, will not be distracted by that. After Bravo had kept his eighth clean sheet out of eight against Eibar, Luis Enrique acknowledged that a perfect defensive record was a nice alibi to take to Madrid, but not the most important. "The fewer goals you let in, the better, but the priority is to win," he said.
And put to him that the fact that even defeat would not put Madrid above Barcelona in the table was an ideal scenario, the Barca coach responded bluntly: "The perfect scenario would be if Madrid had no points at all and we had our 22."