MADRID (AP) – Jose Mourinho defended Cristiano Ronaldo's form on the eve of Real Madrid's Copa del Rey quarterfinal against Barcelona, describing his performance against Mallorca as his best since the coach's arrival at the club.
Ronaldo has come under criticism after squandering chances in a 3-1 loss to Barcelona last month, but Mourinho said the forward's work ethic in the second half of Saturday's 2-1 win was better than all of his Madrid accomplishments before.
''I've been with Cristiano for more than a year and half and I don't know how many goals he's scored, hat-tricks, decisive goals like the winning goal in the cup final. But you know what my favorite Cristiano moment was? The second half against Mallorca, it was his best,'' Mourinho said on Tuesday, a day before the first-leg match at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
''He worked like an animal and did exactly what the team needed. He was fantastic.
''He was dead by the end of the game after all that work,'' a scowling Mourinho added. ''After the work he did in the second half no one can criticize him. If you want to criticize him we'll have a problem.''
Ronaldo has scored 112 goals in 116 appearances since joining Madrid in 2009, and he set a Spanish league scoring record with 40 goals last season.
But the former Ballon d'Or winner has struggled against Barcelona with only two goals in 13 matches. His last goal against the Catalans was in the 1-0 cup final win last year to deliver Madrid its first Copa del Rey since 1994.
Ronaldo leads the championship with 21 goals for the Spanish leaders, who hold a five-point lead over three-time defending champion Barcelona. Madrid has won 22 of its last 23 games, with its only loss coming against Barcelona.
April's cup victory is the only victory for Madrid against the European and world champions in its last 12 meetings, but Mourinho told his players to erase that final from their minds.
''I won't change my idea and start to think that the league is not the priority. But tomorrow is a very important game,'' Mourinho said. ''Over two legs, what matters is to score one more goal than the opponent. But what is the key (to victory), I don't know.''
Mourinho said Angel di Maria would be included in the squad after reports emerged on Tuesday that the Argentina forward had suffered a setback in his recovery from a right thigh problem.