The Portuguese returns on Sunday after he was left out of the Copa del Rey clash at Sevilla on Thursday, but he is playing less than ever in 2016-17
He used to play in every single game. Cristiano Ronaldo has been virtually ever-present during his time at Real Madrid, sitting out only an occasional match here or there. These days, however, he is featuring in fewer fixtures.
Madrid have played a total of 29 matches in 2016-17 and Ronaldo has been involved in 20 of those, missing nine and also substituted in another four. In total, he has been on the pitch for 1,773 minutes, lower than any other season except his debut campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu when he was sidelined for an extended spell through injury.
And injury is partly behind his reduced role this time around. The Portuguese missed the start of the season after suffering a serious knee problem in the final of Euro 2016 and he was forced to sit out Madrid’s first three matches this term.
When he returned, he was eased back by coach Zinedine Zidane, playing 66 minutes against Osasuna before missing the away game at Espanyol altogether. He was then substituted by Zidane after 72 minutes in Las Palmas, clearly infuriated to be leaving the pitch early on that occasion.
As in previous seasons, he was left out for the first round of the Copa del Rey, sitting out the games against Cultural Leonesa. He was then absent again for the home fixture against Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga in December in order to rest ahead of the Club World Cup, and did not take part in the home and away games versus Sevilla in the cup earlier in January.
The 31-year-old has ended two of the last three seasons with fitness problems and Zidane is keen to avoid something similar this time around as Madrid seek silverware in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League at the end of the current campaign.
« We have spoken, Ronaldo and I, about rotation, » Zidane said recently. « I think the press have to realise that this is a very intelligent player. My idea is that he’s in good shape throughout the season.
« Playing 20 games maybe in 70 days is a lot. Every now and then he needs to rest and he agrees with me so there’s no problem there. Of course he’s a footballer and he wants to play week in, week out, every game. But we talked it through. »
It makes sense. Ronaldo has been affected by knee problems in recent seasons, struggled at the business end of the campaign in both 2013-14 and 2015-16, and he will also turn 32 in just over three weeks.
The Portuguese has already changed his game over the past couple of seasons to become more of a penalty-box player than a winger, conserving his energy more efficiently as he gets older and aware of the physical limitations with which he has to cope.
Nevertheless, there are few players in world football who take care of themselves like he does and the Portuguese reiterated in December that he would like to continue playing for 10 more years.
If that really is the plan, then he will be conscious that he cannot play every single game. Zidane knows that too and given the spectacular strength in depth of the current Madrid squad, the Frenchman is able to rest the three-time Ballon d’Or winner and still send out excellent teams.
Not only that, but the idea is to be able to call on a fitter and fresher Cristiano – all the way until the end of the season. And at the moment, with Ronaldo resting and Madrid unbeaten in 40 matches, it’s working out just fine.