Manchester United and manager Sir Alex Ferguson know a thing or two about Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Real Madrid superstar made his name with United at Old Trafford but, this Wednesday evening, they will face him as an opponent for the first time in the first-leg of their Champion’s League knockout clash at the Bernabeu.
So how exactly do you solve a problem like Ronaldo? Former United defender Gary Neville believes that he is almost impossible to defend against.
"Now, he is a monster. I saw him on Saturday evening. He picks the ball up in an innocuous position, 30 yards out, does some type of shimmy I can't even describe let alone do, beats a man and whacks it in from 25 yards,” said Neville.
"You can't defend against that.”
Well Neville’s United successor Rafael is going to have to do just that – defend, all game. He may as well forget about the attacking side of his game. He’s going to have to focus on Ronaldo for 90-odd minutes.
He is, unfortunately for Ferguson and United, the least experienced of what I expect will be their back-four. Ferguson will likely go for Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as his central pair with Patrice Evra and Rafael as his first-choice full-backs.
However Rafael has been in fine form this season – he has matured and improved immensely since Neville’s retirement. He is going to have to play the game of life to beat Cristiano Ronaldo though.
Keeping him out wide may be a good strategy – forcing him to put in crosses or play in his teammates will frustrate him. Restricting his time and space on the ball and forcing him to make errors and mistakes is Rafael’s best bet. He’ll be desperate to steal the headlines and if he doesn’t get his own way, his confidence will take a hit.
He’ll need to shackle him and force him to receive the ball in wide areas – Rafael needs to make sure he doesn’t turn him inside out – and Ferdinand and Vidic can’t leave Rafael isolated with Ronaldo one on one. They have to double up on him.
Ronaldo will want to come inside from off the flank – he’ll be desperate to score a goal himself against his former club. If he moves in centrally, Ferdinand and Vidic need to knows who’s going come for him and who’s going to stay – any hesitation or miscommunication and Ronaldo will punish them.
However, to shackle a player of Ronaldo’s quality, it’s going to take the whole team - not just the defence. Every United player will need to be aware of his whereabouts and be prepared to close him down in all areas of the pitch. They need to deny him space and time on the ball or he will run them ragged and steal the show.
Synonymously, the midfielder need to cut off his supply – without the ball, he’ll have a quiet game. They need to make interceptions and mark him out of the game. Michael Carrick especially, if he plays, will need to use his anticipation to diffuse the problem situation before it becomes a problem situation.
They have to remain on their feet – going in strong is only going to get them booked and give away free kicks in dangerous areas. We all know what Ronaldo can do from dead-ball situations. They need to hurry and hassle him but without making contact. He’s always been a diver and he’ll embarrass them if he gets the chance. Ferguson will know that better than anyone else.
It’s not impossible – we’ve seen Ronaldo have the odd quiet game. It doesn’t happen by accident though – United need to ensure he receives the ball as seldom as possible and, when he eventually does get on the ball, they need to make sure he’s closed down immediately. Not just by one man but at least two.
If they can double-up on him and mark him out of the game, cut down on his supply, and force him to take up wide positions, they could very well win the game and the tie. If they don’t or can’t shackle Ronaldo, their Champion’s League dream will become a nightmare in a split second.
image: © Jan S0L0