LISBON: Fresh from vanquishing Atletico Madrid with his 39th Real Madrid hat-trick, Cristiano Ronaldo will be guaranteed a hero’s welcome when he returns to where his career began at Sporting Lisbon on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila).
Ronaldo has another landmark in his sights as he is just two goals short of 100 in European competitions and history suggests he won’t go easy on the side that handed him his breakthrough.
The three-time World Player of the Year has scored on all five occasions he has faced his former clubs in the Champions League, netting twice against Sporting for Manchester United in 2007 and as Real produced a stunning late fightback from 1-0 down with 89 minutes played to win 2-1 when the sides met back in September.
Despite that Ronaldo is still loved by the Sporting faithful and leading Portugal to their first ever international tournament win at Euro 2016 has only embellished his hero status in his homeland.
“Divided heart,” ran the headline in Lisbon sports daily Record on Monday with a split picture of Ronaldo wearing a Sporting and Real jersey.
Whilst a point will be enough for Madrid to seal their place in the knockout stages of the Champions League for a record 20th consecutive season, anything other than victory will end Sporting’s chances of making the last 16.
A first league victory over Atletico in four seasons on Saturday also allowed Real to open up a four-point lead at the top of La Liga and extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to 29 games.
“We know that we are facing the strongest team in the world right now, that is why they won the Champions League (last season),” Sporting coach Jorge Jesus told Spanish sports daily Marca.
“But Sporting have desire, confidence and we will play like in Madrid with a lot of quality and confidence.”
Had Sporting held on at the Bernabeu Group F would have a very different look, but Jesus believes his young side will have learned from that experience as a Ronaldo free-kick and Alvaro Morata’s stoppage time header snatched victory for Real from the jaws of defeat.
“We lacked that little bit of experience you have to have in the last 10 minutes in the Champions League, like all the Real Madrid players have. We ought to have gotten a better result,” added Jesus.
“When you are winning 1-0 in the 83rd minute, you can fail to win but you can’t lose.
“Ronaldo’s free-kick is an example. He is an intelligent guy, with experience and he took this free-kick which was decisive. When we say he is the best in the world, it is because he has everything.”
The only debate over Ronaldo’s return is whether he starts in a centre-forward role as he did against Atletico or whether Zinedine Zidane recalls the fit again Karim Benzema.
Real appeared better balanced with Ronaldo flanked by Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez at the weekend, but Zidane has previously stated the “BBC” frontline of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema will always start when fit.
“The three of them are the best,” said Zidane on Monday.
“For their history, for what they have done, but for me that doesn’t matter, I am interested in the group as a whole.”