MADRID No longer the flying winger of old, Cristiano Ronaldo showed his transformation to deadly centre forward has been completed to perfection as he netted a superb hat-trick in Real Madrid's 3-0 Champions League win over Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.
The Portuguese forward, who also scored a treble in the quarter-final against Bayern Munich at the Santiago Bernabeu, and five goals across that tie, is revelling in the central striker's role he has adopted this season.
He was picked alongside Karim Benzema up front in Tuesday's first-leg clash and produced a performance that marked him out as arguably the world's best number nine, despite being a recent convert to the position.
While the 32-year-old's critics point out he has lost some of his pace and the dribbling ability that allowed him to terrorise fullbacks in the past, the forward proved again that he remains as deadly as ever inside the area.
Tuesday's treble took his tally for Real Madrid to 399 goals in 389 games, although the forward claims he scored another in 2010 that was officially awarded to defender Pepe.
“I am very happy for the goals and for reaching 400 goals with Real Madrid,” said Ronaldo, including the disputed effort.
“We have to congratulate the whole team, we were tremendous. It fell to me to score the goals. We played well from start to finish and the goals came naturally.”
As well as a positional switch, Ronaldo has had to deal this season with being rotated by French coach Zinedine Zidane, who has dropped the Portuguese for some of the team's away trips to keep him fresh for the big occasions.
This has paid dividends with Ronaldo netting eight times in his last three Champions League games and overtaking Alfredo di Stefano as the all-time top scorer in European Cup semi-finals with 13.
“He has the instinct for goals, he’s unique,” said Zidane. “Sometimes he needs to rest and he knows that because he’s intelligent.”
Barring a miracle comeback by Atletico in the second leg Ronaldo will spearhead his team in the final in Cardiff on June 3, with the Portuguese looking in perfect shape to add a fourth Champions League medal to his collection.
(Editing by Toby Davis)