Cristiano Ronaldo: The Footballing Galactus that Feeds on the Weight of the Occasion
There he stood. Eyeball to eyeball with the goalkeeper. A penalty late on. Ice in his veins as he steps. A strike of right foot later, he fires the ball into the top corner, Wojciech Szczesny guessing the right way but coming nowhere close. Shirt off, running towards the fans; Cristiano Ronaldo had done it for Real Madrid. Juventus had clawed back a three-goal deficit from the quarter-final, had momentum at the Bernabeu. But a late penalty to Los Blancos had them on the cusp of the last four; min-chaos followed referee Michael Oliver’s decision, Gigi Buffon was sent, and it took an age before the spot-kick was taken, but Ronaldo didn’t shirk or shiver one bit.
We really should have known by then, if we hadn’t prior, that pressure doesn’t faze the Portuguese. When the stakes are high and things are at fever pitch, he doesn’t waver, he doesn’t cower, nor does he fret; the footballing Galactus that feeds on the weight of the occasion. And once again, he’s proved that, he’s shown his infallible knack for still and always being the man when things threaten to go south.
By halftime in this Champions League tie between Atletico Madrid and Juventus, Ronaldo’s most notable acts had been showing five fingers to the Metropolitano faithful, to depict the number of Champions League titles, and then noting it afterwards post-match. Atletico were in charge of this tie thanks to a 2-0 win in the first leg, Diego Simeone had metaphorically (and quite literally) shown his side’s balls, and this looked a long way back for the Old Lady.
The Italian champions, craving a first European title since the turn of the century (23 years), had never recovered from a two-goal deficit in a Champions League tie, while Atletico had never lost a tie in which they’d led from the first leg under Simeone, be it in the Champions League, Europa League, or Copa Del Rey. Juve had released a video ahead of the second leg, dubbed ‘Get ready to comeback’, but it wasn’t that simple, or easy. Massimo Allegri’s side had won their two league games since the first leg, but they hardly convinced in either one. There was pressure.
And no one will the brunt of pressure have been on more than Ronaldo. Signed for about 100 million Euros from Real Madrid, his acquisition was almost primarily for this competition, a competition which he has just about made his own, being the all-time leading scorer. Now, all eyes were on him, this was time to deliver for the umpteenth. He had done this before, helping Real Madrid recover from a similar deficit against Wolfsburg in 2016, but the pressure of this one arguably trumped that of the 2015/16 quarter-final second leg.
From the get-go, Juve showed their intent, only 26 seconds had gone when they found their way into Atletico’s box, and by the third minute they had the ball in the net, although Giorgio Chiellini’s effort was ruled out for a foul by Ronaldo on Jan Oblak. Ronaldo’s intent was clear as well, roaring the crowd on when Atleti defender Santiago Arias mistimed a chest pass for a corner kick. And then, midway through the half, he arrived with the first goal, powering home a Federico Bernardeschi cross, with a header that was more like – as Spanish football expert Sid Lowe described a Luis Suarez goal last November – a shot with his face.
Even his celebration was fierce and driven, roaring the crowd on again, as he dragged the ball back to the centre-circle. In truth, Ronaldo really wouldn’t feature in the game until his second goal, another powerful header that was an inch faster than Oblak’s reflexes. That has been the trait of Ronaldo since he crossed his 30th year in age, playing less, winning as much, scoring a little less, but the goals meaning just as much. His goals in this game, capped off by a late penalty, took his Champions League tally to only four this season – as Richard Jolly pointed out, just one ahead of CSKA Moscow’s Nikola Vlasic – only the second time since he joined 2009 – when he joined Real Madrid – that he hadn’t gotten at least four goals before getting to this stage of the competition, and it is surely no surprise or coincidence that those two seasons have come after he clocked 30 (the other being the 2016/17 campaign). This is the evolution of the man; he won’t bomb on like he used to in the past, he’s not as explosive as he was before, but he’s just as lethal, and his goals carry just about the same weight.
And that was the message that would have resonated after this display last night. To Juventus, it’s a message that with him in the side comes the belief that they can finally go all the way, the confidence that they are going to the next phase with the competition’s most lethal weapon. The man who has the record for most goals in this competition, most goals in the knockout phase, most goals in the final matches, and what not. A man whose group stage goals alone would give him a place in the top five European cup goal-scorers.
To Real Madrid, it was a note of how much he can still give. Los Blancos haven’t had the best of seasons, chewing through two managers already and set to end the season trophy-less, topped off by that humiliation at home to Ajax. Real never looked convincing last season either, but they had Ronaldo, the man who could paper over the most obvious and most damaging of cracks, who could render the biggest of problems and most alarming of red flags commonplace and quite irrelevant.
In fairness, it wasn’t just a Ronaldo-laden game for Juventus. Bernardeschi played a key part in the first and last goals, Leonardo Spinazzola had an impressive game before being substituted, and the Juve defence didn’t lapse in concentrate on those rare Atletico forays forward.
But ultimately, those are secondary. As they were secondary when Ronaldo came here last season with Real and left with all the applause. This was another grand night for the imperial product of sheer will and force. A man who, as he did his own impression of the Simeone, continues to remind us that, however the age, he still has enough time.