By Rik Sharma
MADRID (Reuters) - Cristiano Ronaldo has made a habit of defying his critics and will try to do so again by leading Real Madrid one step closer to the Spanish title on Sunday against bitter rivals Barcelona.
Four-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo has faced accusations that his powers were waning and while he is no longer the flying winger that terrorised defences, he is no less effective for Los Blancos.
Ronaldo has become a powerhouse centre-forward, demonstrating how he can continue to play at the top level in the coming years despite turning 32 in February.
Across the Champions League quarter-final clash with Bayern Munich, which Madrid won 6-3 on aggregate, he struck five times and became the first player to score 100 goals in the competition.
“I don't know who doubted me. The people who love Cristiano never had any doubts,” he said.
While the Portuguese is sometimes accused of being a selfish player, his new role sees him participate in attacking build-up play more frequently and in the recent 1-1 Madrid derby draw against Atletico, he created good chances for his team mates.
Ronaldo is no longer untouchable, with Zinedine Zidane happy to rest him for less important games so that he arrives in top condition for the big clashes. He sat out the 3-2 win over Sporting Gijon on Saturday so he could feature against Bayern on Tuesday and in the Clasico.
The striker’s positional transition began in 2014, when he began playing closer to the penalty area, despite nominally starting as a left winger.
It has only been this season that he has been deployed as a centre forward from the off by Zidane, most notably in the 3-0 win at Atletico Madrid in which Ronaldo scored his 39th career hat-trick.
He has 19 La Liga goals, 10 fewer than Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, but Ronaldo is still third in the Spanish top scorers chart.
In recent years he has had a bigger impact on the Clasico than his Argentine rival, scoring the winner at Camp Nou last season and netting in both matches in 2014-15.
Madrid’s poor record in La Liga during Ronaldo’s era at the club is often used as evidence against him in comparisons with Messi, Los Blancos winning just one of seven titles since he joined in June 2009.
But his team go into Sunday's showdown three points ahead of their rivals from a game fewer, and victory at the Santiago Bernabeu would put them on the verge of their first La Liga triumph for five years.
If he can settle Sunday’s match in Madrid’s favour, they will need only nine more points from the 18 available to win the league.
Ronaldo previously claimed he would like to retire from Madrid duty when he turns 41 and while that still seems optimistic, his evolving game means he can continue being decisive on occasions as big as these.
(Writing by Rik Sharma; Editing by Neville Dalton)