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Hat-tricks used to be special. In Spain over the last three-and-a-half years, Cristiano Ronaldo has played his part in making them seem rather ordinary.
Of the 182 goals Ronaldo has scored during his time at Real Madrid, almost a third have arrived in threes. Twenty hat-tricks since summer 2009. Sixty goals. Whichever way you take those statistics apart and put them back together, they are simply remarkable.
Over on the east coast in Barcelona, Lionel Messi has also done his bit to make the extraordinary seem ordinary. He has scored 22 hat-tricks for the Catalan club.
Manchester United do not have to face Messi in two days, though. United have to face Ronaldo in a tie Madrid boss Jose Mourinho — at Old Trafford for United’s defeat of Everton — yesterday described as ‘a match the world is waiting for’.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side must find a way to stop Ronaldo and, on the evidence of Saturday night’s single-handed dismantling of Sevilla at the Bernabeu, that will be harder than perhaps even Ferguson imagines.
In an interview yesterday, Ronaldo, 28, suggested he had never been as happy as he was during his six years at United. That, it must be said, takes revisionism to new levels. A very young man at the time, he loved United and hated Manchester.
Whatever the case, it is hard to imagine any footballer on the planet looking as comfortable, confident and in control as Ronaldo did here on Saturday. This was a hat-trick scored by a player operating some way within his considerable means.
In the stands of their cavernous stadium, they stood to hail him. After each goal, they bowed. When he left the field after just 63 minutes he received his customary ovation.
Real Madrid may be a troubled football club that is once again doing its best to eat itself up from the inside. Mourinho may be fighting battles on numerous fronts and their league title — so hard won last season — is already on its way to Barcelona.
Ronaldo, though, continues to function in his own bubble of near-perfection. He has always been less of a front man and more of a solo artist. One of the benefits of this is that he is able to keep his own levels high while those around him struggle. On Saturday, he was perhaps as effective as we have ever seen him. He wasn’t as extravagant and self-indulgent as he can be, but that is no bad thing. This was sporting efficiency of an extraordinary kind.
Playing in an under-strength team on a cold night in a stadium that was far from full, it was not Ronaldo’s usual stage.
Perhaps he can smell the challenge of Wednesday already, though. Perhaps this was his warm-up.
Ronaldo played his part in his team’s opening goal, crossing for Karim Benzema in the 18th minute.
It was the middle period of the game he made his own, though. Certainly, his first goal will stand out in the memory. The step-over he put on poor Hedwiges Maduro, Sevilla’s No 12, was dazzling enough. Even with the benefit of replays, it was hard to see how he had done it.
But the devilish, whipped shot with his left foot from 25 yards that followed was spectacular. Given the defenders between him and the goal, there was only a two-foot square piece of netting available to him as he took aim and he managed to find it without the ball ever touching the floor. From that point, there was no real contest here. Ronaldo, though, sensed opportunity and his two goals at the start of the second half owed as much to hunger as anything.
On both occasions he led devastating counter-attacks, that scampering sprint of his so reminiscent of some of his finest days at Old Trafford.
What will puzzle Ferguson (below) and his staff over the next few days is how to play him. It is unlikely they will detail one man to shadow him. It has never really been Ferguson’s style.
It is more likely, perhaps, that they will play 4-5-1, sit deep and invite Ronaldo to play in front of them. On Saturday, it was the moments when Ronaldo was allowed to run clear on to passes over the top that proved so uncomfortable for Sevilla.
A final word on the hat-tricks.
In five years at United, Ruud van Nistelrooy managed five. Sir Bobby Charlton recorded six between 1956 and 1973 while Denis Law chalked up 14 during his 11-year residence at Old Trafford. Eric Cantona never scored one.
It is perhaps unlikely that Ronaldo will add to his 20 trebles against his old club on Wednesday night. However, only three times since the start of December has he played a league game in which he hasn’t scored at least one goal for Real.
United will be concerned. – Daily Mail