How Cristiano Ronaldo has found his best Real Madrid form at the right time
By Patrick Surlis
Last Updated: 21/05/17 9:08am
For the first time in several years, Cristiano Ronaldo is finishing a season in top condition.
His double against Celta Vigo on Wednesday took him to 13 goals in his last eight games, a run of form that has propelled Real to within one point of a first league title since 2012.
With the club now just two matches away from clinching a La Liga and Champions League double, it is perfect timing.
It's no coincidence either. The player and his manager Zinedine Zidane have carefully managed his fitness, enabling Ronaldo to avoid injuries that have plagued him at this point in recent seasons.
"What you have is a Ronaldo primed for the last third of the campaign," said Sky Sports Spanish football expert Guillem Balague.
"That's a big change. In previous years he has been injured at this point. Now he feels completely sharp when it matters."
He missed the Copa del Rey final in 2014 and was short of 100 per cent in Lisbon, when his celebration after scoring Real's fourth in a 4-1 Champions League win over Atleti was a rare highlight in an otherwise forgettable performance.
Ronaldo suffered muscle problems in April 2016 too, missing three games, and famously injured knee ligaments after a gruelling summer with Portugal.
That cost him a pre-season and two league matches but perhaps crucially also served to give him extra rest.
He is on track to make the fewest number of league appearances since his first season at Real in 2009/10 when he missed seven weeks due to an ankle injury.
And his playing time is down significantly on his last two years in particular. On both occasions he played more than 3,000 minutes per season, a heavy workload alongside Champions League commitments.
More rest for Ronaldo? (La Liga only)
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Having turned 32 in February, Ronaldo has recognised the need to limit his physical workload.
When Zidane tried to rest him last season, substituting Ronaldo against Las Palmas, the Portuguese left the field with a bewildered expression.
But the forward is on board this campaign, giving his coach the scope to withdraw him as required.
"I speak with Cristiano all the time and I know him very well," Zidane said last Friday. "He knows that until now, he played 60-70 games a season and the accumulation of all those years meant he needs to rest a little.
"I'm not the coach that has made him rest, all I know is that players need to rest, especially if they want to arrive at the final stage of the season in top condition."
He was rested for four consecutive away games before starting the 4-1 victory at Celta. He didn't even travel in the match-day squads. No long journeys, no hotel stays.
After two goals, three points and a huge step towards the title on his return, it seems the plan has paid off.
He was also replaced after 84 minutes in Galicia, the fifth time he has been taken off in 28 league games. Ronaldo has never been substituted more often.
But it is not just about match-day rest. Spanish newspaper Marca reports the light bulb moment came after Ronaldo limped out of the Euro 2016 final.
Since then, he has also changed his training and eating habits in an effort to stay trim and fit for the run-in.
"I know he has stopped doing the muscle building in his upper body," Balague added. "He is working harder on muscles that allow him to keep his explosive pace.
"You can see he seems leaner than he was when Real won the Champions League final in Lisbon. He has lost 3kg, rest and nutrition have been absolutely crucial."
It has left him feeling sharper and that, combined with a subtle change of position, has had a big impact.
He has scored 25 goals since the turn of the year - including back-to-back Champions League hat-tricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.
And it could yet prove the difference as Real fight on two fronts to finish the season.