MADRID (Reuters) - Once famous for his extravagant stepovers and ability to leave defenders in his wake, Cristiano Ronaldo has this season evolved from fleet-footed winger to penalty box predator extraordinaire.
Real Madrid have reaped the rewards of switching the Portuguese to play as more of a central striker.
With eight goals in his last four knockout stage appearances, Ronaldo has almost single-handedly fired Zinedine Zidane’s side into Saturday’s Champions League final with Juventus.
That also puts Los Blancos on the brink of their first league and European Cup double in 59 years as they seek to become the first side to retain the European trophy in successive seasons in its current format.
The switch to centre forward has also seen Ronaldo overtake Jimmy Greaves as the top goalscorer in Europe’s top five leagues with 368 goals between the Premier League and La Liga, while also passing the milestones of 400 goals for Real and 100 Champions League strikes.
“The business end of the season is important. I feel good and want to be fit and firing because this is where things are decided,” Ronaldo said.
”I want to score goals and hopefully we don’t suffer too much. The team are in good form and we’ll try to enjoy it. Winning the league helped calm us down a lot. We want to make history and be the first side to defend our title.
“I‘m at the best level physically as I have in the last few seasons because I have played less. It is down to the intelligence of Zidane and my teammates.”
Indeed, the Frenchman’s decision to rotate the No. 7 has been a key factor in their success this season. Ronaldo has sat out four of the side’s previous nine games and is looking fresh. It is a stark contrast with last year, where he started 34 La Liga games before picking up an injury that saw him miss the Champions League semi-final victory over Manchester City.
The return speaks for itself, with 13 goals in his last nine appearances and the lowest number of games played in a single campaign since missing a large chunk of 2009/10 through injury.
“We’re intelligent, and even he sometimes needs to play a bit less,” Zidane said.
”It’s not because he isn’t as physically fit but because he wants to head into the final stage of the season, when everything is at stake, in top form.
“Now, he’s in fantastic shape. It isn’t just about this year, it’s the accumulation of all the seasons in his career in which he has played 60 or 70 matches. It gets to the point where you need to take a breather.”
Editing by Hugh Lawson