Cristiano Ronaldo must get back to basics to rediscover touch for Real Madrid
Is it just me or is it beginning to look as if Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo needs to focus on practicing his skills a bit more?
Ronaldo, like Madrid legend Raul before him, is a footballer and a competitor of enormous proportions. But, to a significant degree, self-made.
By any normal standards both men were born with terrific technical gifts but, by Raul's own admission, not the kind of innate technical ability which, say, made Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, David Silva, Andres Iniesta, Johan Cruyff or the Brazilian Ronaldo extra-special.
Raul, when he was king of the Bernabeu, was required to out-think, out-anticipate and out-compete everyone -- opponents and teammates alike. Part of his charm was that he was explicit about how he worked brutally hard at minimizing his deficiencies and also at finding ways to get an edge on everyone else. He was, literally, brilliant at that.
Ronaldo was born with more advantages than Raul: height, power, athleticism, but I'd also argue that the Portuguese benefits from more natural technique than the Spaniard whose all-time Los Blancos' goal scoring record he eclipsed.
However Ronaldo has been lit by a burning desire not only to be considered the best footballer in the world today, but the best of all-time. As such, he's constructed his greatness via a phenomenal appetite for self-betterment.
From learning not to over-indulge in stepovers at Manchester United, to embracing the challenge of playing as centre forward rather than a winger; from transforming his physique from that of a lean greyhound into muscular powerhouse, to that spell when his free kicks seemed unstoppable.
Latterly, his self-sculpting has been equally ingenious. Realising that he no longer has the engine to sprint 60 metres and dribble past five men three or four times a match, 40 or 50 times a season, he has evolved into an outright penalty-box striker.
From somebody who barely troubled the scorers in the Champions League at Manchester United [15 goals in 52 matches] to someone who's smashed the record in that competition, hitting the net 98 times for Madrid in 93 appearances. Every time he meets an obstacle, he works extra hard to hurdle it.
The first time I ever interviewed a teammate about him it was when Gerard Pique was Ronaldo's colleague at United. Back then, and it was true for an eternity afterwards, Pique explained to me that CR7 worked harder than anyone else: free kicks, headers, volleying, dribbles, penalties -- he always did extra work.
He was always a terrific trainer, but he honed his excellence and embodied that famous saying: "The harder I work, the luckier I get."
Now, Real Madrid's training is closed to the media. I'm not accusing Ronaldo of slacking, he remains a model pro, but there's an increasing look to his game of a guy who needs to get back to basics -- perhaps a guy who's just, infinitesimally, allowed fine-tuning to slip in favour of other priorities.
You'd have to say that nearly everything else in his life is pretty feng-shui.
Parental life: prodigious
Ability to manipulate the media with both charm and filtered briefings: undiminished
Physical state: exceptional
Recent trophy record: historic
However his first touch, his finishing, his assurance, his cold-bloodedness in front of goal, his eye-to-ball co-ordination -- well, they're all a bit sheng-fui. All the right letters, just not necessarily in the right order.
If you follow football, let alone Spanish football, you'll have seen the evidence. There have been dozens of exhibits over the last few weeks.
From the marginal ill-fortune of a header which would normally have been buried last week against Malaga, but which allowed Karim Benzema to profit. To the weekend when, served up nicely at the back post against Athletic at San Mames, he juggled and muddled his control before shanking his shot.
The stand-out instances, I'd say, were against Atletico Madrid at the Metropolitano in late November. With the game delicately balanced, but Madrid patently superior in the latter stages, Ronaldo was served up two delicious passes which could have sealed the game.
He hadn't played badly -- in that derbi he set up Toni Kroos for perhaps Madrid's clearest chance and drew a good save from Jan Oblak with a free kick -- but then when Marco Asensio slid him through on goal his basic control let him down. Worse still, when Marcelo set him up for a shot in the dying minutes which would, during 99 percent of his career, have been slotted into the net, it happened again. Chance lost; opportunity for Lucas to block both times.
Twice the record-breaking superstar, who has only been able to do the brilliant things because he dominates the workday skills so completely, controlled the ball as if his boot was triangular.
George Best used to joke, cruelly, about opponents who could "trap a ball further than I could kick it" -- and I never thought I'd see someone who inherited Best's No. 7 shirt at United so nobly make me think of that barb.
But I'm not just picking on that one incident. During the barren spell he's suffered in La Liga this season there have been a series of moments when his touch, alertness, ability to strike cleanly and quickly, just don't represent his trademark playing style in any way.
What's missing, it appears, is the kind of thing that sends a golfer back to the range or the putting green to put in hundreds of hours hitting ball after ball until everything is in order again. Muscle memory, confidence, timing, attitude; all required to get back in the zone.
Even given Ronaldo's admirable eight goals in five games in the Champions League so far this season, that's not where he is in domestic football. Not by a long way. Instead it's two goals in 10.
The outlandish things he's been able to achieve in his pomp don't simply stem from his physical or technical gifts -- he sees things sooner and better than most footballers. But, until now, he's been ultra-elite because his ability to transfer what he sees or imagines into reality is based on a total domination of the basic skills of the game.
In the crucial situations, he has not lost a split second; he's not been more than a millimetre short on a control; there's not been a scintilla of doubt in his brain.
It's interesting to watch Tiger Woods right now. Comparably great, I think, if you want to match him and Ronaldo in their respective fields.
But because of his physical ailments Woods has been forced to go back to basics and practice. To re-examine what made him great. To re-discover techniques and habits which allowed him to dominate players who might have similar talents but who never "wanted" victory so much. Who didn't work as phenomenally hard at the basics.
My suspicion is that Ronaldo is at that stage in his career where a minor comfort zone has emerged. By his own admission, he is happier than ever personally because of fatherhood and in football terms over the previous two seasons, he's been served up with some of the finest assists that any striker could dream of.
The visual evidence is that when that five-star provision dips a little, with Madrid's full-backs injured or suspended, with the midfield looking leg weary and with Gareth Bale often absent, Ronaldo has allowed a gentle slippage in the rudimentary elements of his game which allow him to soar.
Time to get the head down and practice Cristiano. If it's good enough for Tiger, it's good enough for you.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.