We reveal how rest and a new training regime primed Cristiano Ronaldo for his Champions League heroics…
Cristiano Ronaldo is not known for his modesty. After scoring twice to help Real Madrid to a 12th Champions League he was quick to explain why he deserved to win the title.
Then, when he was questioned about his ability to keep on performing at the highest level, the 32-year-old shot back: “My age is just a number, I feel like a young boy!”
Yet, away from the stage and the spotlight, Ronaldo, with encouragement from his manager Zinedine Zidane, has, this season, accepted he must adapt his game to his ageing body.
Player and coach came up with a plan to carefully manage his fitness, so he would avoid the injuries and fatigue which had begun to plague him at this point in recent campaigns.
“It’s a decision we made together, based on conversations we’ve had,” Zidane told UEFA last month. “We are intelligent and sometimes he needs to play a little less.
“It’s not because he’s not physically fit, but because he wants to reach the final phase of the season, when everything is at stake, in his best form.
“He’s played a lot this year, but there have been times when he’s been left out to have a break. Now he’s in fantastic shape.”
There’s no denying that. Ronaldo has scored 16 goals in the final 10 games of the season, including a title-clinching opener at Malaga and the double to down Juventus in the Champions League final.
“That’s a big change,” says Sky Sports Spanish football expert Guillem Balague. “In previous years he has been injured at this point. Now he feels completely sharp when it matters.”
Ronaldo 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 Atletico Madrid was a rare highlight in an otherwise forgettable performance.
Ronaldo suffered muscle problems in April 2016, too, missing three games, and injured knee ligaments at the European Championships after a gruelling summer with Portugal.
This season, the change in strategy has seen Ronaldo 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.
He’s played 2,544 minutes in La Liga, compared to over 3,000 in the past two seasons, and been substituted five times – more than ever before.
He was rested for four consecutive away games before starting the 4-1 victory at Celta in May. He didn’t even travel in the match-day squads. No long journeys, no hotel stays.
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.”
That shift has set Ronaldo up for the next phase of his career. No longer the lightning quick, tricky winger of his Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United youth, Ronaldo is now a pure goal-scorer.
“I wonder if he’s building up for a long career as a centre-forward,” said former United team-mate and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville.
“Then his running doesn’t have to be 11km, 12km per match, it can be 7km, 8km, 9km, where he can still score two goals and live off moments.
“He’s living off moments more than his all-round performance now. I think we’ve seen the transformation of a player.
“We’ve seen Ryan Giggs go from a flying winger to someone who played more centrally as a midfielder. We’re seeing Cristiano now as a centre-forward.
“He knows he can’t go up and down all the time now. He knows he can’t go past players all the time. He’ll become a goalscorer, a poacher and a good one.”
It seems Ronaldo is prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to keep on winning – even if that means taking himself out of the limelight occasionally.