Ronaldo at full throttle with Ballon d'Or in sight

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Antonio Villalba/Real Madrid/Getty ImagesCristiano Ronaldo has his sights on winning the Ballon d'Or

Cristiano Ronaldo played a blinder in El Derbi Saturday night. A sublime free kick and an assist for Mesut Ozil to help Los Blancos to a 2-0 victory over Atletico and haul back some pride after falling not only 11 points behind leaders Barcelona, but eight behind their city rivals going into the match.

The Portuguese forward hit the woodwork twice and generally stole the show, albeit one that did not really live up to the billing. Falcao? The Colombian was in Ronaldo's shadow, for one game at least this season. It was arguably the former Manchester United man's best game in a Real Madrid shirt this season. All this in the match that immediately followed the announcement of Ballon d'Or nominations. Two plus two equals four?

Madrid's talisman will join Barca duo Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta on the short list for world football's greatest individual prize and a repeat of the contest for the UEFA Player of the Year award handed out earlier this season. We all remember that one, don't we? Iniesta scooped the award to the surprise of some, but none more so than Ronaldo, whose face painted a thousand words.

While Leo could not have been more happy for his teammate, Ronaldo looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. Get set for round two ahead of the Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich next month.

The battle for the award kicked off at the start of the year. But for Ronaldo, the next few weeks could be crucial, or so he may well think. His performance against Atleti was that of a man who knows he has to impress. A man who is desperate to impress. A man who is desperate to win the individual prize he craves more than any other.

Anything he, or indeed Messi or Iniesta, does before the winter break could well be meaningless in the long run, but it seems the Portuguese is not taking any risks and is going to hit top gear - starting against Atleti at the weekend. It is good news for Ronaldo, and it is good news for Madrid.

"On the individual level I am very happy with my performance, because I scored a goal and provided an assist," Ronaldo said Saturday. "But the most important thing is the team, which played very well.” Praise for his performance came from Madridistas, it came from the press.

Assistant coach Aitor Karanka came out for the post-match press conference and his praise was there too, albeit short and sweet: "He’s scored again and set up a goal. He’s in great form."

Much can be said of the contest of this year's Ballon d'Or. Messi is runaway favourite and perhaps rightly so. He took his goal tally to a whopping 84 this calendar year, one short of Gerd Muller's record, and he still has four games to surpass it.

A betting man would say the Argentinian is odds on to do just that and go down in the history books, as if he were not already going to. It would take a brave to hand the Ballon d'Or to anyone but Barca's little maestro. Iniesta can stake his claim, too, not only thanks to his performances with Barca but also his player of the tournament award in helping Spain to Euro 2012 success and also winning the UEFA Player of the Year award - ahead of Messi and Ronaldo.

For Madrid's man, his hopes are coupled with Los Blancos' La Liga triumph last season, in which the Portuguese forward was key. His goal-scoring record ain't bad, either, but just not as prolific as Messi's in all competitions. The daft penalty decision aside, Ronaldo was superb at Euro 2012, too.

Ronaldo certainly gets his boss's backing: "If Messi is the best on the planet, Ronaldo is the best in the universe," Jose Mourinho said on a Portuguese radio station earlier this season. He continued: "How can you win the Ballon d'Or without collecting titles, without winning anything important?

"Don't come to me telling me about the Intercontinental Cup or the Super Cup, this is small stuff. Tell me about fat titles." A pointer to Madrid's historic La Liga triumph. Of course he is going to back his man.

On his nomination, Ronaldo said: "For me it is an honour to be a candidate for the Ballon d’Or and for FIFA’s World 11, and I am very proud. They are two very special awards and I think that being amongst the candidates is primarily the result of the hard work and support of my teammates, both at Real Madrid and Portugal."

Of course he is honoured, and of course he is proud, but that nomination will mean little for Ronaldo if he is not the one to win it. He has seen Messi - his nemesis as the Spanish press, and indeed the world's, like you to believe - win it three times and a fourth would see him win the accolade more than any other footballer before. Ronaldo is desperate to prevent that.

This piece is not entirely about who should and who should not win the Ballon d'Or. It is about the lift it has seemingly given Cristiano Ronaldo after a seemingly unhappy start to the season in the all white. The "sadness" he pointed to earlier in the season, which thereafter linked him with moves to a number of Europe's top clubs, or at least those who could afford him - Paris Saint-Germain being the leading contender, and a return to Manchester United, to feel 'loved' again, was muted recently.

Saturday showed the happier side to the Portuguese, however. A side that Madrid has needed all season long. A side that, if showcased week-in week-out, would surely see him lift that individual award he so desires.

The stunning first-half free-kick came at a time when questions were being asked about Ronaldo's striking capabilities from set pieces. Should it be Ozil? What about Xabi Alonso or Angel di Maria? That famous stance was no longer bringing goal after goal.

Indeed, the strike against Atleti was Ronaldo's first since the last time the sides met - last season at the Calderon April 11. Quite some time for a man famed for his shooting and famed for that free-kick stance. Only David Beckham and Roberto Carlos can rival that of late - a determination that had been lacking in by no means all, but some, of Madrid's previous matches this season. A hunger, a desire, a threat on goal that few other players in world football can replicate. His 13th goal in 14 games this season.

Madrid has five competitive games before the Ballon d'Or ceremony in Switzerland. Four are before the winter break and just the one after it before Ronaldo will probably travel along with Mourinho, who is up for the manager award, to see if he is lucky this time around. So beware Ajax, Valladolid, Espanyol, Malaga and Real Sociedad - Ronaldo is looking to impress the world, and he is looking to do it at your peril.

Follow Nicholas on Twitter @nicholasrigg

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