Cult of Cristiano Ronaldo distracts from Real Madrids brilliance | Barney Ronay

Real Madrid are on the verge of a third Champions League title in four years, yet Ronaldos smothering persona is obscuring an exceptional event

Cristiano Ronaldo has been grandly ever-present before Saturdays Champions League final, lurking behind every object in your eyeline like the sky, or God. Away from football the Ronaldo newswire has been ticking and whirring away through the night. Ronaldo reveals his summer style secrets. Ronaldos girlfriend may or may not be pregnant. Ronaldo has been declared the most famous athlete on Earth by an algorithm.

As Real Madrid and Juventus complete their preparations for an intriguing final in Cardiff a large part of the analysis has, as ever, been bound up in trying to explain Ronaldo. Rarely can such miniature, deceptively simple athletic craft have been so carefully picked over. Not least in the last two years as Ronaldos movements have been scaled back into the supreme repetitions of his role as a pure goalscorer. And so the search goes on for the definitive take on that stylised robo-deity brilliance, the same movements, the same routine exceptionalism, a kind of chem-sex football, all manly, muscular, sculpted hunger.

It is probably key to the wider fascination that Ronaldos persona has become so hilariously glazed and distant. Like all the best icons he is alluringly blank. Ronaldos Instagram account is the fifth most followed in the world but also surely one of the most thrillingly bland.

Andy Warhol once said: My idea of a good picture is one thats in focus and of a famous person. Warhol would have really liked Ronaldos Instagram. Here it comes now. Cristiano is cycling on an exercise bike in a pair of designer jeans. Cristiano is leaning on his kitchen counter beaming cloudlessly like the youngest-ever president of the galactic space federation. Cristiano is in a backwards baseball cap doing a thumbs-up with Julia Roberts and pretending he knows who she is, but victorious, however briefly, in the constant struggle to keep his clothes on.

What does Ronaldo really do with himself, in those moments when he is simply being Ronaldo, unobserved? There are a few established facts we can go on. He owns a car that goes 254mph. He does 3,000 sit ups a day. His favourite song is I Believe I Can Fly by R Kelly. Perhaps Ronaldo likes to do all three things at the same time, driving at 254mph while doing sit-ups and listening to I Believe I Can Fly. Training gear. Six pad. Warhol also said: I want to be a machine.

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Ronaldo isnt actually a machine, although if he were he would be a very good machine probably the best machine ever. The reason for going on about this here is that slight feeling of embedded confusion, of so many waves of guff to be shed and waded through around the edges. The cult of celebrity personality has always been a part of football but not quite like this. The Ronaldo persona, the sheer weight of his presence feels like a distraction from the more interesting issues around his team.

Real Madrid are, lest we forget, on the verge of something exceptional in Cardiff, a game away from a third Champions League in four years. Should this happen Zidane-era Madrid will be the first team since Arrigo Sacchis great Milan in 1990 to retain the European Cup. On their record they can also claim to be one of the greatest club teams ever. Three in four years: only Bayern Munich in the early 1970s, the Ajax of Johan Cruyff and the all-star Madrid team who won five in a row in the 1950s have bettered this.

Which is an odd thing in itself. Because generally and clear your mind of Ronaldo; put the sixpad down we love these great teams in other ways. We feel theyre not just great. They mean something. Cruyff and post-Cruyff Ajax meant something. Some have theories about total football as an emblem of the enskilling of human beings, a pushing back against the alienation of post-industrial life. This is almost certainly a load of wiffle but it is persuasive, romantic wiffle. Cruyff talked a lot about the mathematics of that team, about football as a function of distance, making a connection between the teams style and his own exceptional facility with mental arithmetic.

Cristiano
Cristiano Ronaldo is said to own a car that goes 254mph, does 3,000 sit-ups a day and his favourite song is I Believe I Can Fly by R Kelly. Photograph: Pierre Marcou/AFP/Getty Images

This is obscure but its interesting. Its a thing. Just as Manchester United in the 1990s were interesting, a team who expressed a certain home-town verve, a city-based confidence, and Sacchis Milan were a brilliant, living science project, an ideal of sustained, fearless collectivism.

What does this Madrid team mean? On the face of it, it means there are really good footballers in the world and that if you have lots of money and a really good brand you can buy them.

Not that this Madrid arent a wonderful team. These are wonderfully irrepressible footballers in their own right. The midfield three of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are droolingly good. The defence are supremely assertive and athletic. This is no hurled together collection of stars either. The first choice XI have been at the club for, on average, six and a half years.

But still. Being exceptional: this is their exceptional quality. Just as if it means anything this team are simply the ultimate expression of the super-club culture, of the extraordinary centralisation of power and resources.

Football has always been like this. Madrid have always bought big. They tried to buy Pel for 15m in 1974. But not quite to this extreme, desiccating degree. The value of the Madrid starting XI often tops the 350m mark. Their rivals are almost all variations on this.

And of course attempts to succeed some other way are caught up and in the ripples of this voracious inferno. Try building something now. Monaco, who might have grown to dominate the next five years, are already in the process of being dismantled. And so on we go. Juventus are also a wonderful team and well capable of spiking that bid for club football ultimacy.

For now Madrid remain gloriously poised, if still somehow a little vague around the edges. Looking for something to love, to feel moved by, you find yourself staring as ever at those endless Ronaldo repetitions, alluring, unstoppable, and opaque in their chanceless brilliance.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/jun/02/cristiano-ronaldo-real-madrid-cult-brilliance

Chelsea stroll to within a games reach of title and send Middlesbrough down

Victory at West Brom on Friday will confirm Chelsea as Premier League champions after a 3-0 win relegates Middlesbrough

It was a rare to have a night when two teams had such contrasting stories at the final whistle. For Chelsea, the mathematics are simple now and surely nobody can think those celebrations at the end, with Antonio Conte on the pitch to embrace each of his players, were premature. His side will be champions with one more win and they looked absolutely determined to play in that manner against a Middlesbrough team that quietly drops into the Championship, relegated after only one season back in the top division.

If everything goes according to plan, Chelsea can wrap things up when they play at West Bromwich Albion on Friday. Alternatively, it could possibly stretch to their next home game against Watford the following Monday if, that is, Tottenham Hotspur can beat Manchester United the previous day. All that is certain, for now, is that Chelsea have a seven-point lead with three games to go and their supporters can probably be forgiven for going through their victory songs. Tottenham Hotspur, its happened again, was one late chorus from the Matthew Harding Stand.

They can afford to gloat because the chances of Contes side unravelling from this position are somewhere between minimal and non-existent. They will be deserving champions and their latest victory was typical of the high-energy domination that has brought them to this happiness. Chelsea did not have a single period of the match when they lost control. They won with something to spare and, if anything, it was a surprise they did not treat themselves to even more goals.

Middlesbrough, meanwhile, looked what they are: a team that has drifted aimlessly towards relegation, with 26 goals from 36 games. This was the 17th time this season they have failed to score in the league. They have not won at Stamford Bridge since Jack Charlton was manager in 1975 and that 42-year run was never likely to be threatened bearing in mind they have not beaten a single side from the top half of the league all season. Middlesbroughs solitary away win came at Sunderland in August and they were obliging opponents for a team with Chelseas haughty ambitions.

The champions-elect certainly did not miss NGolo Kant, absent with a thigh injury on the day he was name the Football Writers Association Player of the Year to go with the award he has already received from the Professional Footballers Association. Cesc Fbregas fitted seamlessly into midfield, passing the ball with wonderful elegance, setting up two of the goals and delivering a man-of-the-match performance. On this evidence, Kant deserves the seasons individual honours if he has kept this man out of the side.

Marcos
Marcos Alonso celebrates with teammates after scoring the second, which deflected in off Middlesbrough goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

It was a night when Diego Costa, with the opening goal, scored for the 20th time in the league this season, equalling his best-ever total for Chelsea. Eden Hazard shimmered with menace. Marcos Alonso and Pedro skimmed shots against the crossbar and Chelsea now have 84 points, three more than Leicester managed when they won the league last year and, incredibly, 36 higher than the team from Stamford Bridge had managed at the corresponding stage last season. Even at 3-0, Conte was still stalking the touchline, screaming orders and reminding us that the Italians are masters of the hand gesture. His team have won 15 out of their 17 home league games and they have a manager who simply refuses to allow complacency to creep in.

More than anything, Chelsea looked as though they were enjoying themselves. They played like a side in a hurry and it was from their first meaningful attack, after barely 70 seconds, that Alonsos shot ricocheted off Brad Guzan, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, to flash against the woodwork. The tone had been set and from that moment it was near-unremitting pressure on the visitors goal.

Guzan had a difficult night but, in fairness, he was not alone when it came to Steve Agnews players. Fbio da Silva, Middlesbroughs Brazilian right-back, had let Alonso run past him for the second goal and the same defender was also partly to blame when Costa opened the scoring 11 minutes earlier. Fbregas had clipped the ball into the penalty area and Fbio, stretching, inadvertently turned it into Costas path, leaving the striker with the chance to slide his shot through Guzans legs.

By that stage Alonso had flashing a shot across the goalmouth with his second attempt of the first half. His next effort was also going wide but Guzan had come off his goal-line. The ball struck the inside of the goalkeepers leg and flew into the net.

The rest of the night for Middlesbrough was an exercise in damage limitation but it would be harsh to say they demonstrated why they had won only once in their previous 18 league games since Christmas. The truth is not many sides could cope when Chelsea are playing with this drive and motivation, when Fbregas is passing the ball with such distinction and every single player in blue is playing at the point of maximum expression.

They began the second half exactly where they had left off: looking for more goals. There was only one more, however, and it arrived in the 65th minute. Fbregas, again, played the decisive pass. Nemanja Matic controlled the ball on his chest, spun away from the nearest defender and lashed in a right-foot shot. Chelsea had played like champions and Conte was off on another of his victory runs.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/may/08/chelsea-middlesbrough-premier-league-match-report

Jos Mourinho may sideline league if Manchester United fail to improve

Manchester Uniteds manager may start to save his strongest side for the Europa League if United have not closed in on fourth place when the competition resumes next week

Jos Mourinho will field his strongest team in the Europa League to focus on qualifying for the Champions League qualification by winning the competition if results go against Manchester United in their next two games, against Everton and Sunderland.

The goalless draw against a resolute West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday and Sundays draw between Arsenal and Manchester City left United fifth in the Premier League, five points behind City in fourth. United have a game in hand, though Pep Guardiolas side have a superior goal difference of five.

United face Everton at Old Trafford on Tuesday and Sunderland on Sunday, before travelling to Anderlecht for the Europa League quarter-final first leg on 13 April. The return leg is seven days later.

I just want to think that against Everton we are going to do what we tried to do [against West Brom], to try to play with our best team and try to win the match, Mourinho said. And after Everton we go to Sunderland with the same perspective, and then after Sunderland the Europa League comes and I dont know. Then, its possible that you see me play in the Premier League with a team where Im going to protect the players that I consider fundamental for the Europa League. But only, only if the results in the next matches put us in a situation where mathematically, it becomes almost impossible to do it.

I go with mathematics. Until its impossible mathematically, we keep trying. Because this week is a week without the Europa League, we have nothing to think about with the Europa League. This week is easy. From the focus point of view, its easy. We have to play Everton, we have to play Sunderland, and in these two matches we have to go for them thinking about the Premier League and nothing else. After that match against Sunderland, then we have Anderlecht and the quarter-final of the Europa League are very important for us.

Mourinho was unhappy about the chances missed against West Brom by his attacking quartet, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. Its every day [they miss], he said. So I keep doing what Im doing during the season. I give chances. I try. Play again. Come on. Keep going. You have talent. They know they have talent. OK, lets go. Lets try. Lets have one more opportunity. No pressure. Keep going. There is nothing else we can do.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera will be available again on Tuesday followingsuspensions and Paul Pogba, who has missed United last two matches, may also be fit.

Ibrahimovic has scored 26 goals in his first season at United but Mourinho did not believe his absence was decisive on Saturday. Weve had matches here with Zlatan that we drew, said Mourinho. He [missed] a penalty in a game to win it 2-1 [against Bournemouth]. He missed chances like other people did too, so I cannot say now that if Zlatan and [the injured Juan] Mata played, we win against West Brom. I cannot say that.

What I can say is that Jones and Smalling, they would not play better than Bailly and Rojo did. Pogba and Herrera could not play better than Fellaini and Carrick did. That I can say for sure.

Fellaini, making only his second start in the league since January, was one of Uniteds better performers but after an eighth home draw of the season, he admitted Uniteds home form has to improve.

Its disappointing, everyone is disappointed. Weve lost a lot of points like that, but thats football and we have to keep fighting, Fellaini said. There are 10 games, 30 points, so we have to keep going. There are a lot of big games coming and we have to be ready. There are six points available next week and I hope we can take them. Everton will be a tough game. Theyre a tough team but every game will be difficult and we have to fight to the end.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/apr/02/jose-mourinho-manchester-united-europa-league-premier-league

Chelsea believe Premier League title is coming after Gary Cahill sinks Stoke

A late goal from Gary Cahill gave Chelsea a 2-1 win at Stoke and had Antonio Conte and his players greeting convincing chants of Were going to win the league

Gary Cahills 87th-minute winner had Antonio Conte swinging in delight on the roof of Chelseas bench and the captain mobbed by team-mates in front of a delirious travelling contingent.

This was particularly sweet for Cahill as his push on Jonathan Walters allowed the same player to equalise Willians opener as the break encroached.

Until Cahills intervention Chelsea Chelsea had been heading for two dropped points that would have offered a glimmer of hope to the chasing Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. But this smash-and-grab victory will only sap spirits in north London and east Manchester.

Conte hailed the three points as significant, and with Chelsea leading by 13 after 28 matches he was looking at the mathematics, pointing out that the equivalent of seven more victories will guarantee the championship.

Today was a great win, a good signal but it is important to continue with the same commitment and work rate as a team, he said. We need to take 21 points for the title win. There are 10 games to go. I am pleased because to play Stoke at this point of the season, you have to be prepared mentally and physically. For this reason, we won today. It was a tough game, we tried to play football and deserved to win. We faced a really good team.

I am pleased for Gary Cahill because we conceded a penalty after a little push from him. To score the winning goal is great for him and our team. Diego Costa played very well and showed great discipline. It is not easy to start the game with a yellow card and then to stay calm. Diego is showing me a great will to think and fight for the team. I want to continue this way.

Costa had a typically spiky afternoon, which did not particularly impress Mark Hughes. Diego Costa draws fouls and tries to make most of contact when they are not fouls, said Stoke Citys manager. He is adept at the dark arts and everyone in football recognises that. He has many elements and factors, you have to put up with them.

Stoke started brightly, troubling the visitors along their flanks. This had the home crowd urging them on though NGolo Kants slick midfield act soon had Chelsea threatening via Marcos Alonso and Costa, whose first half featured a running battle with a variety of opponents.

Costa went down under a Geoff Cameron challenge perhaps too easily, which caused the midfielder to tell him to find his feet again quickly and Blues fans to reel off a few rounds of Diego, Diego.

An incident and noise-filled beginning next featured Alonso steaming down the left and when he drew a free-kick Chelsea made the most of the opportunity. This was as soft as goals come. From an acute angle about 30 yards out, Willian struck the ball cleanly but Lee Grant should not have allowed it to squeeze past him at his near right post. He did, though, to cue a Chelsea celebration and some despairing Stoke navel-gazing regarding how, precisely, they were 1-0 behind.

On 32 minutes Stoke started a fight-back. Marko Arnautovic collected a free-kick and his cross claimed a corner. From here the contest took a controversial turn. Bruno Martins Indi finished Camerons header-on but, after consultation with an assistant, Taylor ruled the strike out for Saido Berahino either pushing Csar Azpilicueta or for being in an offside position that interfered with play.

The next incident was the Stoke goal for which Cahill was culpable. Erik Pieters launched a diagonal free-kick from the left into the area and the defender, for some, reason shoved Walters. Taylor pointed to the spot and that was 1-1.

Meanwhile the Costa-versus-Stoke sideshow continued in venomous manner, as a free-kick won by the Brazilian from a Shawcross challenge was followed by Phil Bardsley being shown a yellow card for taking him out. In the second half Costa was relatively becalmed, though he and Martins Indi continued to suggest each might boil over at any moment.

After Alonso crashed a free-kick off the bar, Stokes final threat was a late Arnautovic corner that Chelsea dealt with. Now came Cahills winner and the feeling they will continue to handle the pressure and claim a fifth Premier League title.

When Taylor blew for full time Bardsley had just been sent off, following a second booking, and Conte and his men greeted their fans jubilant singing of Were going to win the league as if they, too, now firmly believe it. As Conte added: To have a 10-points gap, 13 at the moment [is good], but I like to think our opponents will win tomorrow. We have to look at ourselves. We are happy. We must be ready to fight, today we were ready.

Hughes has no doubt. It is Chelseas title now, he said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/mar/18/stoke-city-chelsea-premier-league-match-report