When it comes to pure glamor, few sports franchises can match up with Real Madrid. Recently valued at more than $3.4 billion by Forbes with 32 La Liga titles, 19 Copa Del Ray championships and 10 European Cups in hand, Los Blancos are the envy of virtually every soccer club around the globe.
Nevertheless, coach Carlo Ancelotti’s side faces a dilemma. For all their panache, Real Madrid can’t escape the lingering specter of another injury to Cristiano Ronaldo.
The reigning World Player of the Year was forced to the bench against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday with what is being termed a muscle strain, replaced by the youthful and exuberant James Rodriguez during a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. On the surface, all may appear well for Ancelotti and company. After all, Rodriguez supplied Real Madrid’s goal during the draw against their crosstown rivals. But another look presents potential troubles, especially if Ronaldo’s injury foreshadows an extended absence.
When he’s physically healthy, Ronaldo is the best finisher in the world. When he’s not, the star forward seems to struggle keeping a foothold in games. As Real Madrid’s unquestioned leader, Ronaldo is the focal point of an offensive attack that includes the likes of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and now Rodriguez along with Toni Kroos.
On paper, that’s more than enough skill to make up for the potential loss of Ronaldo. Games are played on the field, however. Considering Ronaldo is Real’s first offensive target at all times, greater pressure will fall on everyone else to step up.
Benzema, coming off a strong season playing alongside Ronaldo, is at his best when he can play off of the Portuguese superstar. The same can be said of Bale, who excels on the flank when he has space. Kroos is a great setup player in the middle, but he doesn’t score much from midfield while Rodriguez has yet to prove he’s a fully capable target forward.
Rodriguez is a natural choice to take over as the main striker if Ronaldo is sidelined for an extended period. He carried Colombia at times during the World Cup and claimed the coveted Golden Boot at tourney’s end. Whether the youngster is ready to carry that performance over to the pressure-cooker that is Real Madrid has yet to be determined.
It’s a bit of an unfamiliar position for Rodriguez, who spent most of last season playing on the wing with former club AS Monaco. If Ronaldo’s injury woes persist, he’ll be asked to take over in the middle and provide some relief for Benzema, who’ll be targeted by defenses without another proven striker alongside.
If the World Cup is any indication, Rodriguez has the ability to do so. With Radamel Falcao sidelined due to injury, Rodriguez took over as the main man in Colombia’s offense and produced wonderfully. He’ll need to do so again if Ronaldo can’t go in the coming days.
At only 23 years of age, it’d still be a big step for Rodriguez. When originally signed by Real Madrid, the plan was for Rodriguez to work into a supportive role while learning from one of the world’s best on club soccer’s biggest stage. With Ronaldo’s injury, that plan might need to be changed.
It’s also entirely possible that Ronaldo’s current injury woes will clear up in coming weeks. If he comes back quickly and is fully healthy, the entire conversation becomes moot. Until then, Rodriguez will face greater scrutiny than ever before. Hopefully the $80 million man will be ready for the challenge.