Football/Soccer

Ronaldo won't chase lost causes but he will win United games

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo (second left) celebrates scoring his side's winner against Champions League opponents Atalanta
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room (brendancrossan@yahoo.com)

ONE of my favourite strikers of all-time was Romario. After being enthralled by Diego Maradona during the 1986 World Cup finals, the next best thing was the diminutive Brazilian.

Italia ’90 produced Roberto Baggio but the home nation fell at the semi-final stages to an Argentina side, led by a half-fit Maradona.

By the time USA ’94 came around everyone was holding out for a hero that could somehow conjure the magic of Maradona of eight years earlier.

Romario answered the call.

In truth, he didn’t come close to reaching the dizzy heights of Maradona (who could?) but Brazil’s number nine was as good as the global game got in the 90s.

Like Argentina and Maradona in '86, Brazil wouldn’t have ended their 24-year search for the World Cup without Romario.

Brazil of '94 were a functional team up until the final third of the pitch where Bebeto and Romario combined marvellously for a month.

Of course, Romario wasn't an easy player to manage. He infuriated every manager he ever played under. Bobby Robson had the joy and the angst of having him while at PSV Eindhoven in the early 90s.

Everything seemed to be on Romario's terms. He broke all sense of team rules, partied the night before games, but he was an unerringly accurate finisher with skill to burn and explosive pace over 10 metres.

He was also desperately lazy.

In fact, Robson went further. He described the mercurial star as "pathetically lazy", adding: "but you had to pick him because, if you left him out, you might miss a hat-trick... Hoddle, Robson, Lineker, Beardsley, Barnes, Waddle and the others were all special but Romario, to be frank, he was just on another plane.

“He was quite an extraordinary finisher. He could get the ball past a goalkeeper from angles which would make you say: ‘How did he do that?’

You wonder would there be a place for a Romario-type striker in today’s modern game where GPS stats, sprints per game and ‘pressures per 90 minutes’ have consumed managers, coaches and supporters.

Have we overcooked the importance of statistics?

There’s no doubting Liverpool and indeed Manchester City’s success is grounded in hard graft. Their strikers are their first line of defence.

Roberto Firmino is rightly lauded for his insatiable appetite for work-rate and pressing opposition defences.

In Liverpool’s 3-2 win over Atletico Madrid, the Brazilian clocked up 11.48km. That’s an outrageous statistic.

Romario probably wouldn’t have clocked up half that figure on a good day.

If he did the Brazilian probably wouldn’t have scored 688 goals in 886 club games and 55 goals in 70 appearances for his country. But his running stats would have been great!

Romario was a striker who won games, big games. His skill and cunning decided so many matches for PSV, Barcelona and Brazil.

Undoubtedly, he was fanatical to the point of being lazy in conserving energy in order for him to retain that explosiveness in games.

We can let running stats and pressures per 90 minutes consume us but it’s a narrow prism to judge a player.

For instance, Anthony Martial’s work-rate has often been criticised. He looks like a player who has several more gears but he rarely reveals them.

Perhaps those gears don’t actually exist.

One of the laws of football is that if you’re an elite striker and you’re not going to run like Firmino, you better score regularly.

Martial doesn’t score regularly enough to saunter along in games.

Cristiano Ronaldo is a different proposition altogether. You won’t unearth too many moments in a game where he’s pressing the opposition defence.

Manchester United didn’t re-sign the Portuguese superstar to harass central defenders and produce good running stats.

Ronaldo’s primary role is to remain in a central position as much as possible to win games, as he did against Atalanta in the Champions League in mid-week with a brilliant header.

He didn’t harass John Egan, Shane Duffy or Dara O’Shea in Faro either last month but he was there at the death to grab two fantastic headers to win the game.

Ronaldo was signed to win games. In his first stint at United, Gary Neville used to forgive Ronaldo for not tracking the full-back down his side of the pitch because he knew he was hurting the opposition more.

At 36, Ronaldo is not going to all of a sudden turn into a work-horse.

Sky Sports and Opta can compile tables of who is the fastest runner and how many times a player can press the opposition (obviously a key part of the modern game), but there is a happy medium.

There seems a lop-sided emphasis on the great running machines of our time. No-one has compiled a table on football intelligence, decision-making and cunning. There are some things you can’t measure.

Sometimes you just have to use your eyes to decide a player’s value to a team rather than applaud a league table of running stats that will inevitably find Firmino at the top of it.

A bit like Romario in his pomp, Ronaldo has always been worth his weight in gold to the teams he has played for.

He can infuriate team-mates and supporters by throwing his hands in the air if a pass doesn’t reach him. You might want him to work a little harder when the team is chasing a game.

But he is in the twilight of his career. Why would you want his 36-year-old legs working the channels and losing that explosive edge?

All good managers make allowances for match-winners. They bend the rules. Sometimes they break them, especially for the Champions League top scorer - a league table that really matters.

As for Martial and indeed Bruno Fernandes, they haven’t quite reached that space in their careers where they can be forgiven for throwing their arms in the air in dismay at a bad pass and not running after it.

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Football/Soccer