Ronaldo absence gives chance for others to shine

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Whisper it quietly, but Cristiano Ronaldo's current absence through injury may not necessarily be the worst news for Real Madrid at the moment.

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The Portuguese missed Madrid's 4-1 Champions League thumping of Galatasaray with 10 men Wednesday night due to a thigh injury, and Blancos boss Carlo Ancelotti will not risk him for Saturday's visit of a struggling Valladolid side to the Bernabeu.

Ronaldo is in arguably the form of his sparkling career and is now favourite to win the coveted Ballon d'Or award in January, ahead of four-time winner Lionel Messi and Champions League winner Franck Ribery. Ronaldo's place in the stands, rather than on the pitch, is clearly not a favourable one for player, team or supporters. But Madrid needs to continue showing it can cope without its talisman, and it has thus far succeeded.

Ancelotti told the gathered press at Valdebebas on Friday that Ronaldo had recovered from his injury, sustained in Madrid's 5-0 thrashing of Almeria last weekend, but may need up to 15 days to regain full match fitness. He will not be back to face Juan Ignacio Martínez's men on Saturday night.

It is not the worst time for Ronaldo to be missing. Madrid face a Valladolid side that has won just one of its past 11 matches and sits on the verge of the Liga relegation places going into the match. A Copa del Rey clash with Olimpic de Xativa, in which Ronaldo, along with a number of other key players, would probably be rested anyway, follows before his predicted return to action.

Madrid must look on the bright side. In Angel Di Maria, Los Blancos have the perfect understudy. The Argentine stuck around when Mesut Ozil did not following the arrival of Gareth Bale, and indeed of Isco, and has shone for the most part when he's featured this season. Ancelotti's favoured front three of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Bale had been firing on all cylinders, but the Italian cannot rely solely on them.

Di Maria struggled during the first half of Madrid's midweek European clash with Galatasaray but, along with his teammates, upped his gear after the break and provided a goal and an assist to continue his impressive starts haul this term. On his day the wing wizard can be breathtaking, and Madrid will need him to stay fresh, match-fit and motivated as the season progresses. Giving him games, and keeping him firmly as an important cog in the team, will help. Di Maria needs these starts, and Ancelotti confirmed he will get another this weekend.

Much has been made of Madrid's strength in depth this season, especially in the attacking department, and Los Blancos may have struggled in Ronaldo's absence before, but now they are showing the team is not a one-man band as many may have you think. After Ronaldo came off against Almeria, his teammates continued to tick. Without him on Wednesday, they scored another four.

It's not just Di Maria who is rising to the occasion; Bale did, too, against Galatasaray. He took the mantle left by Ronaldo against the Turks, and in difficult circumstances, after the sending-off of Sergio Ramos forced a change in approach. Bale also took the free kicks -- no Ronaldo hovering over the ball. Bale's free-kick abilities were already well known, but he asserted them against Galatasaray with a stunner. Don't expect the hierarchy to change much there on Ronaldo's return, though.

With Ronaldo in the Bernabeu stands again this weekend, his teammates have the chance to show that Los Blancos are a serious force despite trailing leaders Barcelona by six points. Since the Clasico defeat at the Camp Nou, Madrid has won five and drawn one, scoring 26 goals in the process and conceding just nine. Ancelotti's men simply cannot stop scoring on home soil.

On paper, that trend should continue against Valladolid. Despite a win on their last trip to the Spanish capital, a 3-0 success at second-from-bottom Rayo Vallecano, Valladolid are struggling and are expected to arrive at the Bernabeu to park the bus and frustrate their hosts for as long as possible. Benzema is likely to return in place of Jesé, who saw a rare start cut short in midweek owing to the dismissal of Ramos, while Luka Modric could feature after his Champions League suspension. Fabio Coentrao is set to be sidelined until the new year.

Madrid undoubtedly has a much stronger team with Ronaldo in it, but the rest of the squad will be eager to prove they're not too bad, either.

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