Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring his second goal against Atletico Madrid during their Spanish league match on Saturday. Ronaldo scored a hat-trick as Real won 3-0 at home.
Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane insisted he has no doubt Cristiano Ronaldo will be the deserving winner of a fourth Ballon d’Or come January, but his hat-trick in a 3-0 defeat of Atletico Madrid on Saturday may convince others.
Ronaldo returned to haunt Atletico just five months after scoring the winning penalty in Real’s second Champions League victory over their city rival in three seasons.
In the final La Liga derby at Atletico’s Vicente Calderon, Ronaldo’s deflected freekick opened the scoring before he doubled the lead from the penalty spot and completed his 39th Real Madrid hat-trick with a simple finish from Gareth Bale’s fine cross.
“I never had any doubt. It is not his three goals that are going to change my mind,” said Zidane on Ronaldo’s case to be crowned the world’s best player for 2016.
“He showed it all last season, he shows it in every game. There is so much expected of him, but he is ahead of the rest.
“Three goals in a match like this may make everyone agree, but for me there is no debate. The Ballon d’Or will be his.”
Victory extends Real’s lead at the top of La Liga to four points from Barcelona, who missed the ill Lionel Messi in a 0-0 draw at home to nine-man Malaga earlier on Saturday.
Madrid is now unbeaten in 29 games in all competitions stretching back to April, but this was Zidane’s men’s best display in that run.
The performance was even more impressive given Madrid was missing six key players through injury.
However, those absences forced Zidane to change his system to devastating effect with Ronaldo playing as a center-forward and the outstanding Isco in his natural role just behind the Portuguese.
“I am left with Isco’s performance, he was phenomenal. In the first half he didn’t lose a single ball,” added Zidane.
“That position is his position and with him behind Cristiano we were very well balanced.”
However, Zidane refused to confirm whether Ronaldo would be retained as a center-forward once Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata are fit again.
“He is comfortable in that position and we know that, but we will see what happens in the coming games.”
A third league defeat in four games leaves Atletico’s title credentials hanging by a thread.
Diego Simeone’s men slip to fifth and are now a massive nine points adrift of Real.
“Above all in the first half they were better than us,” admitted Simeone.
“For the first 20 minutes of the second half we created chances, played in their half and controlled the game, but then came the penalty, which took the wind out of our sails.
“It is clear that we need to find better solutions for the players to improve and maintain that 20-minute spell in the second half.”
Simeone’s surprise selection of Fernando Torres ahead of Kevin Gameiro up front failed to pay off as Torres was easily controlled by Madrid’s makeshift central defensive partnership of Raphael Varane and Nacho.
However, Simeone defended his decision to start Torres in a bid to counteract Real’s threat from set pieces.
“We were looking for more penetration and aerial play,” said Simeone.
“With Torres, Saul (Niguez), (Diego) Godin and (Stefan) Savic also balanced up their height at set pieces, which is something important to consider.”
No excuses for money bags Barca, says Pique
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique insisted the absence of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez was no excuse for the Spanish champion dropping two vital points in a 0-0 draw with nine-man Malaga on Saturday.
Messi was ruled out just hours before kick-off due to illness, whilst the suspended Suarez looked on ruefully from the stands as an insipid Barca failed to find a way past Malaga’s defensive wall and the inspired Carlos Kameni in goal.
“The absences are not an excuse, we are Barca, we have players worth a lot of money. We all have to perform,” Pique told reporters.
“Sometimes the ball doesn’t want to go in, but there is nothing we can do but keep going.”
A point means Barca missed the chance to leapfrog Real Madrid at the top of the table ahead of the European champion’s visit to local rivals Atletico Madrid later on Saturday.
Kameni produced an incredible 94th minute save from Neymar after Diego Llorente had been sent-off midway through the second half.
Juan Carlos also then saw a straight red in the sixth minute of time added on, but Malaga held out for a point.
Indeed, they could even have snatched all three had Carlos not hit the side-netting with the goal gaping after rounding Marc-Andre ter Stegen on the hour mark.
However, Barca boss Luis Enrique claimed he could only praise his side for a display in which they were “infinitely better” than the dogged visitors.
“We are one of the teams most used to playing against opponents that put a lot of men behind the ball,” said a visibly frustrated Enrique.
“But that doesn’t mean that we will always overcome it.
“We didn’t get the reward we deserved.”
Enrique played down the importance of Messi’s illness, meaning the five-time World Player of the Year is likely to return along with Suarez for Barca’s Champions League trip to Celtic on Wednesday.
“For him to miss a game he has to be very unwell because normally it is very difficult for that to happen,” added Enrique.
“It is nothing serious. It is something logical and normal at this time of year, and he is already recovering.”