Ronaldo makes it a treble as Madrid eyes turn to United

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

All eyes were firmly on Manchester United and the Champions League at the Bernabeu on Saturday night, but an under-strength Real Madrid side was still good enough to stroll to a 4-1 victory over Sevilla in La Liga.

- Ronaldo nets hat trick in win

Jose Mourinho rested plenty of key players in light of Los Blancos' meeting with United in Europe next Wednesday; players such as Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Raphael Varane were given the night off. It mattered not against Unai Emery's men as Madrid eased to victory.

However, there was no rest for Cristiano Ronaldo despite nagging fears over an ankle injury, and it proved to be the right decision as the Portuguese returned from international duty to score his 20th hat-trick in Madrid colours. The only blot on Madrid's copybook was the sending-off of Gonzalo Higuain for two bookable offences.

With Madrid already throwing in the towel on retaining their La Liga title, the main priority for Mourinho was for his men -- those first-team players still starting the match – to come through the match unscathed ahead of the visit of Sir Alex Ferguson's men to the Spanish capital on Wednesday. The Champions League has always been the Holy Grail for Madridistas, and that feeling has only intensified this season due to Barcelona's league dominance. Defeat against Sevilla and a full bill of health ahead of United was preferable to victory on Saturday night and an injury problem or two.

Madrid got just that. Higuain's dismissal was unwanted, but the Argentine will only miss a league match, and not a crucial match in Europe or in the Copa del Rey -- a competition that is also a higher priority for Los Blancos as I type. As well as players coming through unscathed, Mourinho also managed to welcome Pepe back to action for his first team bow of 2013, some much-needed game time to get him back to full fitness. Wednesday night may come too soon for the Portuguese defender, but he could be in contention for Madrid's return trip to Manchester in the second leg.

Mourinho made no secret of where he believes the battle with United will be won and lost -- the engine room. Khedira only made the bench, and didn't get any time on the pitch, while Alonso was not risked at all. Instead, Luka Modric and Michael Essien, who've deputised there before, stepped in. Ozil, Madrid's creative spark alongside Ronaldo, also took his place in the stands rather than on the pitch. Kaka's rare start highlighted just how seriously Mourinho was taking the league match.

Karim Benzema and Higuain made a rare start together, possibly a rehearsal for who will start in midweek. Benzema probably won that one. He got on the scoresheet, albeit with a tap- in, and also managed to stay on the pitch. It's a shame the duo haven't been on the pitch together more often this season, as they were last season -- and how well that partnership worked.

Many have said that Ronaldo has carried Madrid in some matches this season. It may be a tad stretched to say the same against a well below-par Sevilla side, but Ronaldo was superb once again. He notched his 20th hat-trick since joining the club and scored his tenth goal in five matches since the turn of the year. His first goal was a superb left-footed effort from the edge of that box that gave Beto, the Sevilla goalkeeper, no chance. His second boiled down to some poor defending on Sevilla's part, but his third highlighted one of Madrid's greatest strengths -- the counter-attack.

It's almost been coined as a cliche this season but Madrid are at their most lethal when they are defending set-pieces, preparing to pounce on the counter-attack. Tonight's fourth goal, Ronaldo's third, was a perfect example. One minute Sevilla were looking to pull a goal back with a dangerous free-kick. The next the ball is in the back of their net. No sooner had Ronaldo won the ball on the edge of the box than he raced towards the other end, passed wide for Higuain, and tapped in from the cross. It took seven seconds and Sevilla were done. Ronaldo was done.

If United fans were not worried before tonight, they should be now. Ronaldo was already in tip-top form this season, and certainly since the turn of the year, but his treble will send him into his 'romantic' clash with his old club in frightening form. He was always going to raise his game to face his old club, his old manager and his old teammates to try to win the trophy that both he and Madrid are so craving. Now he almost need not raise his game, because the form he's in is right up there at the very top.

Saturday night's team will not be the one that faces the Premier League leaders -- far from it. Ozil, Khedira and Alonso will all be back to add more quality and creativity to the centre of the park. Varane will hope to shake off a nagging injury that sidelined him for the visit of Seville -- one would think he will be fit and ready for a return to the starting eleven on Wednesday. But while Madrid will change a winning team, they will bring in fresh legs.

Pepe is unlikely to play -- certainly in the midfield role he was given when Mourinho threw his countryman on to get some match fitness. A tactical fool, perhaps? Surely Sir Alex is wise enough not to fall for that one. Kaka is unlikely to feature, too. A belief cemented when Mourinho brought the Brazilian off even before the 70 minute mark. This for a player who has been crying out for starts, and who is as fresh as the proverbial daisy. Time of rest he needs not.

So now, at last, Mourinho and Madrid can forget about what now seems like an act of going through the motions with La Liga and turn its attentions to the proper stuff: the chase for the tenth European crown and the chase for Mourinho, and Madrid to salvage something from what has so-far been a season to forget. It must have been soul-destroying for Mourinho to go week-by-week playing only to minimize the embarrassment in La Liga, to keep the already emphatic gap from getting wider.

The Champions League is what Madrid was made for. It is what Mourinho was made for. The big one awaits.

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