Eyebrows were raised and a few chuckles overheard last November when it was reported Cristiano Ronaldo had made a bet with his teammates that he could still win the 2017-18 Trofeo Pichichi trophy, which is awarded each season to the league’s top scorer. Ronaldo had scored just once in La Liga at that point, while Lionel Messi had already found the net 12 times in Barcelona’s first 11 games of the domestic campaign.
But an incredible 18 strikes in Ronaldo’s past nine La Liga games means he has now moved to within just three goals of Messi in the Pichichi race, and those who doubted the now 33-year-old have once again been silenced.
The story of the bet emerged on Nov. 7 when El Transistor host Jose Ramon de la Morena claimed that the Portugal captain had put up a “lot of money,” to be donated to a non-governmental organisation or charity, in the challenge with two unnamed teammates, who had perhaps questioned his return through the early La Liga stages.
Ronaldo had missed a number of relatively straightforward chances in that game against the relegation strugglers. He had scored just one of his first 48 shots at goal in La Liga, a late winner in a 2-1 win at Getafe on Oct 14. He then had to wait until Nov. 25 for his second goal, a rebound after his penalty was saved by Malaga keeper Roberto in a 3-2 victory at the Bernabeu. His only others during the entire first half of the La Liga campaign was a double (including a penalty) in a 5-0 at home to Sevilla in early December.
The situation was not helped by missing the first four La Liga games through suspension for pushing the referee when sent off in the season-opening Supercopa against Barcelona. His mood was not improved either by ongoing issues with the Spanish tax authorities, a contract standoff with club president Florentino Perez and a difficult relationship with the Bernabeu crowd.
At the midway point of the season, the two unnamed colleagues must have remained pretty confident about their bet. In Jan. 13’s 1-0 home defeat to Villarreal, Ronaldo had 11 shots at goal (just four on target) and missed one chance from just three yards out.
At that point, his tally was just four goals from 94 shots in 14 La Liga games, and Messi’s 13-goal advantage seemed to have assured him of the Pichichi prize already. But Ronaldo began the second half of the domestic league season with a double in a 7-1 against Deportivo La Coruna, and the goals have just kept flowing since. He’s now scoring once every 45 minutes, up from one every 327 mins until mid-January.
After Sunday’s “poker” four-goal haul in a 6-3 La Liga win over Girona, Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane suggested Ronaldo had been pacing himself earlier in the campaign.
“Cristiano knows himself very well and knows when he has to stop a little,” said Zidane. “He’s always in very good form come the end of the season. He’s got an eye for goal, and he’ll never lose that.”
Even earlier this season, however, there was a stark difference between Ronaldo’s return in La Liga and his tallies elsewhere. He set a new individual record by scoring in each of the six Champions League group games, with nine in total so far. He also netted two in two games at the Club World Cup in December.
The situation gets even more baffling when you look into the stats. These suggest that Ronaldo is not getting more chances recently than he was before, just that he is now converting them. His first 14 La Liga games brought 94 shots (6.7 per game) compared to 61 in his last nine outings in the competition (6.8). The difference is in the conversion rate: 4 percent before, 30 percent now.
On Sunday against Girona, Ronaldo’s four goals came from 10 shots, seven on which were on target. All four were first-time strikes from inside the penalty area. This fits with a season-long trend: he has yet to score from outside the box in La Liga, with the number of shots he takes from more than 18 yards dropping recently from 23 percent to 16 percent. A more subjective view is that he is now happier to lay the ball off rather than shoot immediately on getting within range, confident a chance will soon arrive and he will take it.
Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez told BeIN Sports on Sunday that not even his own teammates really understood what had changed.
“Cristiano is unreal,” said Nacho. “Once again this season he’s proving that he’s the world’s best. He began with the suspension, then he wasn’t putting his chances away. That was strange for him, the fact that he wasn’t scoring. He’s now helping the team, and that’s really positive for us.”
Ronaldo’s early-season drought no doubt contributed to Barca all but wrapping up the La Liga title by Christmas, but his return to form looks perfectly timed for the Champions League’s final stages. The same was true last year, when his 10 goals from the quarterfinals on were key as Madrid retained the trophy.
This year’s La Liga Pichichi battle is very much back on now. Likewise, so too is the race for the European Golden Shoe, where Ronaldo is within six goals of current leader Mohamed Salah of Liverpool. By this stage, the lesson should be very clear: never ever bet against Ronaldo.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan