The pair’s relationship has had its ups and downs since Benitez took over at Real Madrid, but Tuesday’s thrashing of Malmo showed there is hope it could yet work out
The game started as it had against Getafe on Saturday: with whistles for Benitez and an early goal for Karim Benzema. And then the France forward scored a second, as he did in the last match. How Madrid have missed the striker at his brilliant best as he has struggled with injury and off-pitch problems in recent weeks.
Cristiano could sense his opportunity too, with the Swedish side very much there for the taking. The Portuguese failed to make contact with an overhead, blasted over the bar from close range and appealed for a penalty as well. But he was not to be denied and ended his free-kick drought by smashing home a right-footed drive that the Malmo goalkeeper should have saved.
Criticised by the press and also by some supporters for failing to hammer home their advantage after strong first halves against Shakhtar Donetsk and Getafe, dropping the rhythm in the second periods of those games, Madrid maintained their intensity in this one and Cristiano scored three more within the first 15 minutes to become the top scorer ever in the group stages of a single edition of the Champions League: 11 goals and another new record.
Benzema completed his hat-trick later on and Mateo Kovacic also netted to give Benitez the second 8-0 of his Champions League career, having beaten Besiktas by the same scoreline during his time as Liverpool coach.
Things were going so well in this one that Benitez even allowed himself the luxury of sending on Denis Cheryshev, whose presence in the starting line-up against Cadiz last Wednesday ended up costing Madrid their place in the Copa del Rey because the Russian winger should have been suspended. With Madrid eight goals to the good, however, there was only applause for the 24-year-old – and relief for Rafa.
The return of Benzema in his best version is great news for the Madrid coach. Five goals in two games for the France forward – who has now netted 46 in the Champions League – show he is well and truly back. Cristiano will be pleased with that, along with the rest of the team. As is said so often here in Madrid, Karim makes the others better.
Ronaldo too. In the summer there was much talk about the lack of rapport between Cristiano and his coach and even though the relationship is far from perfect, it seems to have improved since the clumsy remarks made by Benitez earlier in the season, when he claimed the Portuguese was not necessarily the finest footballer he had coached, nor the best player in the world.
Rafa rectified after that and now praises the Portuguese whenever he is asked about the three-time Ballon d’Or winner. And it’s better that way. The two men both appear more relaxed after this emphatic win – and also happier.
Benitez said of Ronaldo after the Malmo match: “He is fundamental, a stimulus for all of us.” And Cristiano backed his coach in the mixed zone later on as he said: “He’s doing a good job, he’s adapting well and we have to give him time. We have won five games in a row and we are getting better.”
Indeed, those victories have helped Benitez after the Clasico fallout and Ronaldo’s goals – in a morale-boosting 8-0 success – lifted the mood even more for his coach on Tuesday night.
So long may that continue for Madrid. Because Rafa needs Cristiano and Ronaldo requires the help of his coach as well. After the storm came calm and Tuesday was a perfect night for both men as the relationship shows signs that it may work out after all. Onwards and upwards.