The Portuguese ended his recent dry run in this fixture with a hat-trick and his coach oversaw an impressive tactical display that leaves Madrid on target to win La Liga.
This was the toughest test yet for Real Madrid in 2016-17. Zinedine Zidane’s side came into the derby against Atletico Madrid unbeaten and on top of La Liga, but a meeting with Diego Simeone’s side was always going to be difficult.
And it proved to be a fight, as always. Atletico’s impressive intensity means Real are often second best in this fixture, with Simeone’s superb tactics making life even more challenging. But this time, Zidane got it just right with his formation and Ronaldo rolled back the years to leave his mark on a derby in a way he has been unable to do in several seasons.
The Portuguese scored the winning penalty as Madrid overcame the Rojiblancos in the Champions League final at San Siro in May, but he had hit just two goals in his last 11 matches against Atletico.
There were question marks about Zidane, too. Despite winning the Champions League in his debut season, he was still seen by many as a rookie who will soon be found out. But not on this evidence.
Zidane picked Lucas Vazquez instead of Karim Benzema and even in the absence of Casemiro through injury, Madrid were able to contain Atletico in the first half. With Lucas on the right and Gareth Bale on the left as more orthodox wingers, Ronaldo was deployed as a central striker and that allowed the Portuguese to concentrate more on attacking than defending.
Behind him a 4-4-1-1 system, Isco was operating as a playmaker and this may have been his greatest game in a Real Madrid shirt. Often guilty of taking too long on the ball, giving it away and frustrating fans with slow and overelaborate play, he was quicker in thought and motion than everybody else here, pulling Atletico’s midfielders out of position and giving Simeone’s side plenty to think about.
And Ronaldo, perhaps liberated in his central role and helped by both Isco and Luka Modric, looked hungrier than at any point since his summer injury in the final of Euro 2016. The 31-year-old came close with a powerful header which was repelled by Jan Oblak early on before testing the Atletico goalkeeper with a neat turn and shot in the area.
When he scored, he benefited from an element of fortune as his free-kick deflected in off Stefan Savic and Raphael Varane. But he had earned it and Madrid were good for their lead.
It could all have been over by half-time, but it is one of the great virtues of Simeone’s side that they are able to stay in games even when they are under severe pressure.
And in the second half, Atletico tightened things up and turned the tide, with Yannick Ferreira Carrasco blasting a long-range effort just wide and, moments later, the ball flashing across Real’s six-yard box.
But after Oblak had made a super save from Isco’s volley, Ronaldo raced onto a long ball and went down under a challenge from Savic. It was a soft penalty, yet there had been contact and the former Fiorentina defender should have done better.
Ronaldo has missed penalties for club and country of late, but made no mistake here and later rounded off a memorable night by racing forward on the counter and firing home a great pass from Bale to make it 3-0.
It was emphatic from Real and it was ultimately deserved. This time it was Atletico who took too long to get into the game, so often their rivals’ mistake in this fixture. And Ronaldo duly dominated a derby match as he used to so often prior to Simeone’s arrival.
In the meantime, Zidane’s formation and tactical tweaks showed he has much more about him than many people give him credit for. He has won the Champions League, won at Camp Nou and now at the Calderon, too. The next challenge will be winning La Liga but on current form, that seems entirely possible.