“Direct kick drought” isn’t a phrase we hear often (ever) in soccer. Most players aren’t inherently expected to make free kicks. But when you’re a Cristiano Ronaldo — a player who has previously excelled in those threatening, dead ball situations — you draw extra attention. And when that attention witnesses 56 straight free kicks fail to bend the net, people start to wonder.
But let that wonder end today. Maybe. The Real Madrid star, one week removed from a five-goal fit against Granada, opened today’s scoring against Eibar with this brilliant strike at the Bernabéu:
Did I say brilliant strike? This was more conspiracy than achievement. Are we sure Iker Casillas wasn’t playing today, albeit in the wrong goal? Because that’s the type of howler that not only requires an uncharacteristic lapse but also some teammate’s favor. Can we say with any certainty that Eibar goalkeeper Xabi Irureta hasn’t been offered Keylor Navas’s place in next year’s squad? It’s not like Real Madrid isn’t already signing players.
As with any goal, there’ll be some that want to absolve the goalkeeper. Here it’s easy to say that the ball dipped severely, knuckling and diving as it cleared the Eibar wall. Ronaldo certainly deserves credit for that, but there’s still a level of shot, a basic area of coverage that any top-level goalkeeper should be expected to handle. Be it by gaff or graft, Irureta fell well short of that level, giving Ronaldo and Real Madrid a payoff for this week’s successful suspension appeal.
So Ronaldo’s goal may not calm talk that Gareth Bale (injured today) should be taking El Real’s free kicks, but there was a measure of history in it. According to one well-versed Spanish soccer source, the goal tied Ronaldo with Brazilian free kick dynamo Roberto Carlos for most La Liga goals from direct kicks in the last two decades. Their totals of 16 goals each sit one ahead of former Barcelona savant Ronaldinho.
Still, Ronaldo hasn’t been the same threat from dead balls as he was two yeas ago, a level that was already slightly diminished from the fearsome weapon he’d become at Manchester United. Perhaps the ball has changed – there was always talk of Ronaldo figuring out how to hit that ball’s inflation tube in just the right place. Maybe goalkeepers have become better prepared, or maybe Ronaldo’s skill on these restarts has actually waned.
Regardless, Ronaldo fans’ long nightmare is over. There’ll be no tears on their pillows tonight. Thanks to Xabi Irureta, Ronaldo is a free kick specialist once more. Let’s add another crease to that statue.