By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Cristiano Ronaldo will start for Real Madrid in Tuesday night's Uefa Super Cup clash against Sevilla in Cardiff, but senior figures at the Santiago Bernabeu remain concerned over the long-term fitness of their finest footballer.
Ronaldo has been stepping up his training programme over the last few days to ensure he is in shape for the new season as the European champions chase six different trophies and the Portugal international is desperate to feature in the Uefa Super Cup - the only title of the sextet that he has yet to win in his professional career.
Madrid's coaching staff and directors watched with concern as Ronaldo struggled with the Seleccao at the World Cup, looking well below his peak fitness and avoiding sprints as he appeared afraid of pushing his fragile frame to its limits - something he has done on too many occasions in recent seasons.
Cristiano's competitive streak has seen him turn out even when he probably should have rested at times for Madrid and the 29-year-old wants to play in every minute of every game, but that is now no longer in his best interests. Still suffering from a degenerative knee condition called tendonosis and a long-standing thigh problem, what Ronaldo requires more than anything is rest.
This summer, he has had very little of that after representing his country at Brazil 2014 and then returning to training with Madrid at the end of July. He has been eased back into action by the Spanish side, however, and featured for just 17 minutes against Manchester United in his team's tour of the United States late last month.
Club officials held their breath as Ronaldo began his pre-season preparations but the Ballon d'Or holder has looked sharp since stepping up his programme, even putting some of his team-mates in the shade with his press-up routine (which included claps underneath his body between every lift) and his sprint drills. The worry, however, is that he will break down again at a crucial moment in the side's season - just as he did in 2013-14.
FLOORED | Ronaldo was unfit at the World Cup and there are concerns in Madrid about his knee
Then, the Madeira-native picked up an injury against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League that was described by coach Carlo Ancelotti as "nothing serious". But it was serious enough to see Ronaldo miss the final of the Copa del Rey two weeks later. Later, in May, he was substituted after just nine minutes against Valladolid, missed a crucial clash versus Celta Vigo as Madrid fought for - and ultimately lost - La Liga, before pulling out in the warm-up of his side's final fixture in the Primera Division, with the European Golden Shoe at stake.
Also at stake, however, was the Champions League and again, Cristiano's condition was described as "not serious" and his withdrawal from training "precautionary". But he was below his best as Madrid claimed La Decima by beating Atletico and trained alone or with ice-packs during the World Cup, looking well short of full fitness when his nation needed him most.
Ancelotti has given Goal 50 winner Ronaldo the green light to feature for Madrid on Tuesday. "Cristiano really wants to play in the Super Cup and that's why I gave him minutes [against Manchester United]," the Blancos boss said last week. "There's no reason to worry about his fitness. We are going to prepare him well."
But the 55-year-old is aware that he must rest the Portuguese over the course of the season to keep him fit for the key battles in April and May. With a possible 65 fixtures in six competitions ahead in the coming campaign, the coach knows that neither Ronaldo nor anyone else in the squad will be able to play them all.
With that in mind, Ancelotti plans to rotate his squad as much as possible in 2014-15 and has told his players that around 15 footballers will be competing for the 11 starting spots, with all of them receiving plenty of playing time over the course of the campaign in order to keep the team fresh for the entire season.
That includes Ronaldo. The Portuguese played 4,210 minutes for his club last term and Ancelotti does not want any member of his squad to feature for more than 4,000 minutes this time around. That means Isco and Jese (when he returns from injury) will take some of the load off of Cristiano - along with summer signing James Rodriguez - as the Italian coach shuffles his pack in search of six major titles. Angel di Maria, meanwhile, is still likely to be sold.