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Ancelotti: No competition between Ronaldo & Bale

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The former Real Madrid coach says there are no arguments between the Spanish club’s two attacking stars over free-kick duties, with Ronaldo still taking most of their set-pieces.

As a Goal columnist, Carlo Ancelotti will provide his expertise and insight on this season’s Champions League through an exclusive series of columns and videos.

When Rafael Benitez defended Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick record earlier this season, he inadvertently struck upon the crux of the problem. 

“When we practice in training he hits them well and I am confident,” Benitez said. “He hits them quite well. I will tell them to make you a video.” 

Few would argue that Ronaldo’s knuckleballs look good on film; there is no shortage of YouTube compilations of the best strikes of his 13-year career. The more pressing question is whether his swerving shots are consistently accurate enough to justify Ronaldo taking the lion’s share of Real Madrid’s free-kicks. 

Benitez’s predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti, thinks so. “Firstly, taking a free-kick is not easy,” Ancelotti told Goal. “Then, not many goals are scored directly from frees. He strikes them well, trains a lot on this, but at the end of the day, I believe that the overriding fact is that it’s not easy to score from a free-kick. He’s certainly not got worse.

“He trains a lot on set-pieces, two sessions a week, with the fixed wall. He’s very careful, he spends a lot of time there. He combines great application to a natural talent, because obviously many try but few are as effective as him. There’s the talent, but also the practice, the training, the repetition of the act.”

Ronaldo endured a cold spell last season; after scoring a free-kick in the 4-0 demolition of Bayern Munich on April 29, 2014, he did not score another one until April 11 the following year, in a league match against Eibar. By the end of the season he had netted another as part of a hat-trick in the 7-3 thrashing of Getafe.

But even with that long drought accounted for, the statistics back Ancelotti up. No one in La Liga scored more than two goals from free-kicks last season, and Ronaldo’s record of two from 33 attempts was better than Lionel Messi’s two from 37. In fact, only two players scored more than three free-kicks in Europe’s top-five leagues last season; Hakan Calhanoglu, of Bayer Leverkusen, and Zlatko Junuzovic, of Werder Bremen.

That makes Ronaldo’s record of only failing to score three free-kicks in one of his preceding five seasons with Real Madrid look pretty good. During his debut campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu, 2009-10, he also netted a remarkable three from eight attempts in the Champions League. 

When they work, of course, they are spectacular. “The most beautiful… I remember a friendly against Chelsea in the United States (August 7, 2013, Real Madrid 3-1 Chelsea), he struck it beautifully, just under the crossbar,” Ancelotti recalls. “A truly fabulous free-kick.” 

It was a classic of the genre. Sergio Ramos, Mesut Ozil and Marcelo all lurked around the ball in the hope, however remote, that Ronaldo might offer the kick to them but having been fouled himself by Branislav Ivanovic, there was no question he would take it. 

Petr Cech organised his wall with the precision of a surgeon, but it made no difference. Ronaldo sent it straight over the eight-man line, not even needing to place it in the corner because it was so powerfully whipped underneath the crossbar. Cech barely had time to.

In 2013, a rival to his dead-ball throne arrived in the form of Gareth Bale, who had become renowned for his own brand of dipping tomahawks. When he scored two from nine attempts in his first season in Spain it looked as if Ronaldo’s hegemony over Madrid’s free-kicks might truly be under threat, but the Welshman has slowed down since and Ronaldo maintains the more numbers over the longer term – though only just. 

“No, there’s no competition with Bale,” Ancelotti adds. “Usually, they take them together in training. There is also Sergio Ramos but there’s no competition between them.”

There is a third way, of course; if scoring from direct free-kicks is so difficult, why try to shoot at all? There is a pioneer in that respect across town at Atletico Madrid, where Diego Simeone has virtually banned his players from going for goal. It’s working; last season, Atletico took only six shots from free-kicks to Real’s league-leading 52, but accumulated 27 assists from set plays – nearly double their rivals’ 15, which was the next-best record in the league.

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