The normal career path for a striker is so start slowing down, but Cristiano Ronaldo has never been one to follow the rules says Paco Polit
The game had only been going on for ten minutes when he made his first appearance. Cristiano took advantage of a faulty volley by Casemiro to position himself in the perfect spot: his header, clear from any opposition players, found its way to the back of Jan Oblak’s net.
One hour later, something similar happened: Ronaldo was in the exact place required to ditch his marking and smash the ball home with all his might from outside the box. It was his second goal. Late in the game, another opportunistic move near the penalty spot allowed him to score an easy finish. A hat-trick it was.
Something has changed inside Cristiano. You can notice it if you look closely. Formerly one of the best dribblers in the game doesn’t dribble any more. He sometimes tries, but usually fails. He’s not as fast or fearsome as he used to.
But that doesn’t seem to bother him, though. Nor Zidane. Nor Real Madrid fans. Cristiano Ronaldo has evolved in his game, slowly pushing himself into the box. And that has allowed him to score eight goals against Bayern (in both legs) and Atletico in Champions League knock-out rounds. If that isn’t impressive, you tell me what it is.
Ronaldo, now 32, is following a path uncharted by most footballers, who traditionally take a step back and roll their position in the field backwards as age takes its toll. The Portuguese player seems to defy the traditional reorganizing, indeed: his game has evolved relentlessly from an explosive winger to a dominating number 10 to, ultimately, a deadly striker inside the box. His team, with a commanding 3-0 in the first leg against Atlético in the Champions League semifinal and on its way to its third final in four years, should be thankful for such an unusual progression.
However, the shiny stats and the spectacular performance in the last European matches hide another reality, much more subtle and which should worry Real fans in the long term. Yes, Cristiano keeps being consistent in his scoring ability, and his gravitas is enough most of the time to unlock tight games against top teams. But seasons include much more games, and being a key player in a handful of them is not enough for a club that aspires for greatness.
Three, four seasons ago, Cristiano was always his team’s best player, at least on 90% of the games. Nowadays, he seems to adjust his performance level depending on the event and dose his efforts throughout the year. This, as Leo Messi has also shown lately, can be incredibly positive for his team. But, at the same time, it may sacrifice future prospects in exchange for a bright present. Take a look at the BBC debate, for example: in many of the games where Cristiano has been absent, Real hasn’t just won the game, they have excelled in playing some beautiful football and crushing the opposition with flair.
Whoever suggests a Cristiano-less Real in order to increase the team’s performance, however, would never dare sending the Portuguese star to the bench in showdown’s like last Tuesday’s or the upcoming second leg against Atlético. That would be a stupid move, indeed: Cristiano’s metamorphosis has changed his profile into one of the world’s most effective strikers, toe to toe with monsters such as Luis Suarez or Radamel Falcao.
He excels at striking home any cross with his head or both feet. He’s cunning and his mobility inside the box makes him very tough to cover. And he’s ambitious, possibly the most competitive player in the game right now.
He’s already the Champions League’s top scorer with 100 goals. This season, only Leo Messi (11) has scored more than him in the competition, but he’s already been knocked-out. Regardless of this, the big challenge ahead for Ronaldo and his team mates remains unchanged: winning a Champions League trophy two years in a row, a feat that no team has been able to achieve since the European Cup changed its name in 1993.
Maybe his new role isn’t worthy of that Greatest Of All Time debate that often bathes Leo Messi’s all-around antics (and formerly splashed some of the Portuguese’s performances, too), but Cristiano shouldn’t really care. If he keeps bagging records and scoring consistently in his new position, the Ballon d’Ors and awards will keep trickling in.