Cristiano Ronaldo back in Madrid looking to break Atletico hearts once again

Portuguese star will be in the spotlight during Manchester United's last-16 Champions League tie on Wednesday

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When Cristiano Ronaldo lived in Madrid, over the nine years when his match-winning gifts and goal scoring would climb to surreally high peaks, home was a short drive from the raucous headquarters of his local rivals. Atletico Madrid played for most of that period at the atmospheric but ageing Vicente Calderon arena. There were times when its roars of celebration sounded loud enough to carry to Ronaldo’s modern mansion, a few miles to the west.

Between 2009, when Ronaldo joined Real Madrid from Manchester United, and 2018, when he left Real for Juventus, Ronaldo was a close witness to the remarkable rebuilding of Atletico from a neurotic, fragile mid-table outfit who seemed never to win local derbies into regular European trophy-chasers and close-equals to their city neighbours.

But above all, he was the player who thwarted Atletico most regularly. “He’s done us a lot of damage in the past,” noted the Atletico striker Angel Correa, ahead of Wednesday's return of Ronaldo to the Spanish capital, his 36th career contest with Atletico, but his first in the jersey of United.

Those 36 games are almost the equivalent of a full domestic season spent locking horns with Atletico, sometimes at the creaking, seething Calderon, most often at the Bernabeu and more recently in Turin or at the Metropolitano, Atletico’s relatively new home and venue for the first leg of the last-16 Champions League tie against United.

It’s hard to pick out a particularly special venue for Ronaldo from those: His capacity to break Atletico hearts has extended everywhere.

Not least to Lisbon, site of the 2014 European Cup final, when for the first time in the competition’s history, the trophy came down to a Madrid derby duel.

Atletico led for 54 minutes of the first 90, and for two minutes of stoppage time. But by the time Ronaldo stepped up to take a penalty in extra-time, Real had turned the final on its head. The Portuguese converted to, typically, have the last word and star in the photogenic victory celebration in a 4-1 victory for Real.

The match-winning strike fell to Ronaldo again, two seasons later in Milan, when the same pair of finalists contested the Champions League title again. He struck the last penalty in the tie-breaking shoot-out after a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes.

The next year, Ronaldo met Atletico in the semi-final, and assured Real’s progress with a devastating hat-trick in the 3-0 first-leg victory at the Bernabeu.

Among the defenders run ragged that night was Stefan Savic, the veteran of a back line that will take on Ronaldo this evening without some of the reassurance of previous years.

Atletico, under their long-serving head coach Diego Simeone, used to be regarded as having one Europe’s most dependable, rugged defences. But last weekend, the Spanish champions, fifth in the domestic table, kept a clean sheet for only the second time in their last 12 Liga or Champions League outings.

“We’ve been far less consistent than in the past,” Savic admitted to AS, the Spanish newspaper, “but we’ve had important players out for various reasons. We have the quality to be as strong as we were before.” He has a fair idea of what to expect from United: “We know they have strikers who move well in the penalty area and of course you have to respect Ronaldo.”

The numbers speak for themselves. Ronaldo has scored 17 times against Atletico, assisted another nine goals against them and done that mostly in the era when Simeone cultivated Atletico’s aura of iron defence and erased the long habit of capitulating in Madrid derbies. Ronaldo, at Real, won less than half of his derbies against Atletico.

Soccer Football - Champions League - Round of 16 Second Leg - Juventus v Atletico Madrid - Allianz Stadium, Turin, Italy - March 12, 2019  Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates at the end of the match   REUTERS/Alberto Lingria

But he seldom went quietly through them. In all his duels with Atletico, there have been four hat-tricks, the most recent the stunning turnaround he led for Juventus, who had trailed 2-0 from the first leg of a last-16 tie three seasons ago.

He is guaranteed a shrill, hostile welcome from the crowd at the Metropolitano, as is Rafa Varane, should the former Real defender return to the United line-up. Atletico fans vividly recall that Varane, veteran of many Madrid derbies, was involved in a tetchy altercation with Simeone when the 2014 Lisbon final had swung in favour of Real.

Simeone was enraged the Frenchman had struck the ball hard at the Atletico bench late in extra-time, and, never understated on the touchline, the Atletico coach thundered towards Varane.

It was the sort of unvarnished aggression that, as Ronaldo admitted in an interview for the recent Amazon documentary series on Simeone, Atletico’s great nemesis began to admire. “Simeone has guts,” Ronaldo said, “and I like that.”

Ronaldo records

Updated: February 23, 2022, 4:51 AM
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