This time two months ago, Real Madrid were struggling. Their defense of the league title had already all but mathematically failed. Their Champions League fate also looked shaky, with the back-to-back winners in the club’s favorite competition finishing second in their group and receiving a tough draw against Paris Saint-Germain.
The manager appeared to be on the verge of losing his job, the threat of massive roster overhaul in the summer hung over the players’ heads, and, maybe most concerningly, the team’s one true superstar all of the sudden looked old and slow and sort of bad. With just four goals through his first 14 La Liga appearances, there was good reason to worry that the 33-year-old Ronaldo’s powers had started to abandon him in earnest and for good. Real could lose the league to Barcelona without too much stress, could turn around their Champions League fortunes without all that much trouble, and could even replace an underperforming squad member or three with younger, better teammates. But if Ronaldo was no longer Ronaldo, then that would mean a truly epochal crisis from which it would be incredibly difficult to recover.
Two months on and, well ... the situation in many ways isn’t actually all that different. Lifting La Liga’s trophy is now an even more impossible dream for Real than it was in mid-January, as Barça currently have a 15-point lead on the Blancos with only nine matches left to play. The Champions League does look appreciably brighter, as the Madridistas wound up dispatching PSG with ease and, in the process, enjoyed a much-needed confidence boost. You wouldn’t exactly call Real favorites in Europe, not with how inconsistently they’ve continued to play in La Liga, but then again not a soul would be surprised in the slightest to see Real three-peat there come May.
The one thing that’s notably different about Real Madrid’s season now as opposed to a couple months ago is the perception surrounding Ronaldo. Where there was once well-founded fear that their talisman might not be able to do it the way he used to, there is now only pride, security, and excitement as Ronaldo has absolutely exploded with goals.
Ronaldo went bonkers against Girona this weekend. He scored four times himself and nabbed another assist in a 6-3 goalfest. And this “póker” (the Spanish term for a four-goal haul) of his was in no way an outlier. In the last two months, Ronaldo has poured in 18 goals in nine La Liga matches. From just four goals in the league, miles off the leading scorer pace, and seemingly one foot into washeddom in the middle of January, Ronaldo has thrust himself right back into peak form, now tallying 22 league goals, just three behind Lionel Messi in the Pichichi race, and scoring at such a blistering rate that all that talk of him being past it now looks ridiculous.
And yet, do all these goals in a competition in which Real Madrid will be lucky to salvage at best a second-place finish amount to much? At first blush, it might not seem like finally scoring once it no longer really matters—a state of affairs attributable in substantial part to all the points Madrid dropped because Ronaldo couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn over the first half of the season—is a feat worthy of much celebration. For as unlikely as it was that Ronaldo’s cold streak would continue on in perpetuity, it’s just as unlikely that he’ll average two goals a match for the rest of the season. Even if he does outpace Messi for the Pichichi, that alone won’t win his club any silverware, nor will it reverse the very real aging process that has and will continue to eat away at the edges of Ronaldo’s game even as Father Time has proven thus far unable to meaningfully erode the gifts that make Ronaldo one of the greatest players ever. In a certain sense, these goals have no lasting value other than as kindling for the famously goal-obsessed Ronaldo’s own ego and self-worth.
But thinking about things in those terms is far too uncharitable. For one, Ronaldo scoring tons of goals again would matter a whole hell of a lot to his fans. Not only does Ronaldo hitting his stride once again bode well for Madrid’s chances of winning another Champions League title—which would be an unbelievable feat worthy of endless celebration and praise—but the mere fact that this iconic player is smashing the ball into the net like a madman again has to be extremely heartening for his supporters. One of the most harrowing things in sports is watching a great player’s decline; it’s even worse when it’s your team’s generational star, around whom your entire club is centered, steadily disappearing and throwing everything into chaos. To know that Ronaldo isn’t done yet reinforces Madrid fans’ belief that the glory days are not yet over and their main man still has it in him to be better than anyone when the moment arises.
Even more than what this means to fans, though, is what it must mean to Ronaldo. The one thing even Ronaldo’s greatest detractors can’t help but admire the man for is his adamantine will and determination. Everything Ronaldo does shows that he believes at the depths of his very being that he is the greatest soccer player who has ever lived, and that he alone is responsible for building, through countless hours and days and years of work, the immaculate physique and the preternatural instincts and the lightning quick reactions and the perfected technique and the impenetrable concentration and the limitless confidence it took to earn him that designation.
A story in Marca from yesterday supports this. It relays the anecdote that early in the season, with Messi already scoring 11 goals more than him in La Liga, Ronaldo bet his teammates that he’d overcome his longtime rival for the Pichichi before the season was up. The wager itself is perfectly indicative of the Michael Jordan-level competitive maniac Ronaldo is, and that he’s turned what then must have felt like a laughable longshot into what is now a perfectly plausible threat shows exactly why Ronaldo has been so good for so long and why he’s far from finished.
These late-season flurry of goals won’t win Real Madrid a league trophy, and they probably still won’t win him the golden boot (though they certainly could bring the latter). What Ronaldo’s in some sense irrelevant goals will do, however, is give his fans something to cheer for in the present and to hope for in the future, while once again demonstrating to Ronaldo that no obstacle—not even time itself—can prevent him from doing what he more than anyone else in the game is so singularly driven for, which is to score goals that if nothing else prove to himself that he is still exactly who he believes himself to be.