By Richard Martin
MADRID (Reuters) - After an uncharacteristically slow start to the season which provoked questions about his longevity, Cristiano Ronaldo has roared back to life with a torrent of goals and now has La Liga's top scorer award in his sights.
On a weekend to savor for strikers around Europe, Ronaldo followed the lead of Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and Inter Milan's Mauro Icardi by plundering four goals in his side's thrilling 6-3 win over Girona on Sunday.
His goal-fest against Girona lifted Ronaldo above Barcelona's Luis Suarez as second top scorer in La Liga and he moved within three of Lionel Messi, his eternal rival for goal records and individual awards over the last decade.
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"Cristiano is three goals from Messi and I hope he can become the top scorer because it’s very important to him," Real coach Zinedine Zidane said.
Ronaldo leads the way in Europe in current form, blasting in 21 goals in his last 11 games in all competitions. With 18 goals this year, Ronaldo has scored more times in the league in 2018 than Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea and is only one shy of Serie A leaders Juventus.
The 33-year-old Portuguese also moved up to ninth in the list of top scorers in Europe, trailing front-runner Salah by six goals.
Ronaldo's insatiable recent form is unrecognizable from his mediocre record in the first five months of the campaign.
Banned for pushing a referee in the Spanish Super Cup in August, Ronaldo missed Real's first four Liga games and struggled to get up to speed on his return, ending 2017 with only four league goals to his name for the season.
"His form is outrageous," Real defender Nacho said.
"It's true that at the start of the season, given the amount of games he missed, he wasn't very sharp. But that was strange. Right now he is helping the team a lot and we can all see the effect he is having on us."
Ronaldo's resurgence mirrors how he hit his peak at the back end of last season when, with the help of sitting out the occasional away game, he fired Real to a double of La Liga and the Champions League.
Their title hopes are long gone but they have every chance of winning a third consecutive European Cup. Real meet Juventus in the quarter-finals after dispatching Paris St Germain 5-2 on aggregate in the last 16 with three goals from Ronaldo.
"He knows himself very well and knows when he has to take small breaks and when the final stretch of the season he arrives he is in top shape," added Zidane, who rested his forward for recent games at Espanyol and Leganes.
"When Cristiano plays well the team plays well."
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond)