Cristiano Ronaldo is a man accused of failing to show up in the big games which has been taken on board by United fans. The question of “what constitutes a big game?” has arisen. Your fiercest rivals? Important cup games? Top four opposition?

I have heard people respond that every game is a big game when you’re challenging to win the league. How about his goal against Fulham at Craven Cottage last season, minutes from time, to hand us the win? Or the goal he scored against Derby in a 1-0 win just weeks before the end of this season? On paper, these are not big games, but in terms of important games, dropping points against Derby a fortnight before taking on Liverpool could have been devastating.

What also has to be assessed is what role we’re expecting Ronaldo to play in the “big games”. Against tougher opponents, it stands to reason Ronaldo will be marked by better players. Whilst he can run rings around most full backs in the league, there are always going to be some players he has more of a battle against. Are people seriously expecting him to do to Ashley Cole what he does to midtable nobody?

Ronaldo’s greatest strength in the big games is the psychological effect he has on the opposition. Before any big clash, the opposition’s players and managers are talking about him, saying they need to watch him or claiming they know how to deal with him. So much of their focus is on Ronaldo that the fact we have another 9 World class outfield players to deal with seems to be pushed in to the background. The greatest example of this was the recent European Cup semi final against Barcelona. Ronaldo had two men on him when he received the ball just outside of the box, one of them making a challenge and winning the ball. However, the ball came straight back to an unmarked Paul Scholes to fire home the winner that put us in the final. I’m more than happy to see Ronaldo have a quiet game, be double marked, if it means one of our other players are freed up and have more time on the ball. Like Ronaldo has said many a time, what comes first is the team, and he won’t be losing any sleep because he didn’t score against Barcelona, knowing that his contribution to the game led to our winning goal.

Ronaldo has today responded to this big game criticism, claiming he’s got nothing to prove. “I scored two times against Arsenal. I scored against Liverpool,” he said. “The only team I haven’t scored against is Chelsea. I score against every team in England. I’m very, very, very happy about my season. I scored 31 goals in the Premier League, I won every award and I don’t need to show anything to anyone. It [criticism] doesn’t make me angry because I know I’m the best. It makes me laugh, to be honest.”

So, if we’re going to use the classic definition of a “big game”, just how does Ronaldo fair?

Top scorer in the Champions League
Arsenal (away)
Lyon (CL Round of 16)
Roma (CL quarter finals)
Arsenal (home)
Wigan (must win to capture the league)

City (home)
Roma (CL quarter finals)
Milan (CL semi finals)
City (away)

Wigan (League Cup final)
England (winning penalty in the World Cup)
1 goals in 6 games (World Cup)

Arsenal (away – 2 goals)

City (FA Cup)
2 goals in 6 games (European Championships)
Millwall (FA Cup final)

So, Ronaldo has scored in two domestic Cup finals, two European Cup quarter finals, one European Cup semi final, as well as goals against Liverpool, City and Arsenal. Not a big game player?

Regardless, these are just the goals scored, so don’t give us a full picture, but they are an indicator for how he is playing. We can look at the cross he delivered to Darren Fletcher to score the winning goal against Chelsea two seasons ago. The ball he played to Rooney against Arsenal this season which lead to the opening goal. The powerful and on target last minute freekick against Liverpool at Anfield which lead to John O’Shea’s winning tap in.

However, I think any United fan is happy to admit that the Cristiano Ronaldo we see against Newcastle is not the same player we see in Europe. But what can that be attributed to?

1. Strength of opposition
Tougher opponents make it more difficult to shine. This can be applied to any World class player. How many times did Lionel Messi break in to our box over the two legs? How many saves did Van der Sar have to make? Just watch his highlights of the game at Old Trafford. He had one shot on target in the first half, one shot off target in the second. He ran rings round our players in our half of the field on several occasions, but what came of it? He was either tackled or played the ball straight to one of our waiting defenders in the box. Yet, this is the player some people think is better than Ronaldo.

2. United’s Tactics
United play a tactically very different game against tougher opponents. In Europe, 4-4-2 goes out of the window completely. Ronaldo thrives on the attack and against weaker opposition, United throw more players forward, which certainly aids him. The two games against Barcelona showed an almost unrecognisable United performance. We spent the majority of the 90 minutes with the ball in our half, relying heavily on our defenders to keep the ball out than we were on our attackers to score. This is of course going to have detrimental effect on Ronaldo’s game.

3. His age
Ronaldo joined United when he was just 18 years old, however at the end of his first season scored a goal in the FA Cup final. Since being handed the number 7 shirt, giving a dazzling performance in his debut against Bolton, and introducing stepovers at a frequency we’d never seen in our league before, expectations have been high. However, it’s easy to forget just how young he is.

Aged 23, Eric Cantona was being loaned out to Bordeaux after failing to settle at Marseille. Aged 23, Zinedine Zidane was playing in the French 2nd Division. Aged 23, Marco Van Basten had just made a move from Ajax to AC Milan, but he couldn’t get in the team. Aged 23, Rivaldo was still learning his trade at Palmeiras.

Aged 23, Ronaldo is being hailed by most as the best player in the World, has already won two League titles, has won both domestic cups in England, scored in two Cup finals, has for the second year running collected a clean sweep of the English individual player awards, and has been voted 2nd and 3rd best in Europe and the World. Does he still have room for improvement? Of course, every player does, but the people who get hung up on this “big game player” nonsense are failing to recognise what is most important.

If I had the choice between a 41 goals in 48 games winger, or a player who amazed in just the big games, my pick is all too obvious. Given the massive improvements Ronaldo makes in his game from one season to the next, I can’t rule out him one day playing to a similar standard against Barcelona as he does against Bolton. But for now, I’m more than happy with how he plays, in the big games and otherwise!