Changing times for both Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League
The Portuguese forward begins bid to win competition for a third different club as his previous employers look to triumph for fourth year in a row
Nobody clings to a cup as possessively as Cristiano Ronaldo to the biggest one in club football.
He has five of them, and since the first, achieved thanks largely to his headed goal as a 23-year-old at Manchester United, the trophy has mainly been housed at wherever he calls home.
Ronaldo moved to Spain in the summer 2009. In the 10 seasons since, Spanish clubs have been European champions seven times.
La Liga supplied six of the last 10 Europa League winners, too, and nine of the last 10 winners of the Uefa Super Cup. How can the rest alter that monochrome landscape?
Via the wealth of the Premier League, perhaps, or maybe by simply snatching the competition’s most successful modern footballer? Both methods are being tried.
The only two clubs from outside Spain to have reached a Champions League final in the last five years happen also to be the clubs who spent most on new recruits this summer.
Namely Liverpool spreading their investments, Juventus concentrating theirs on a €100 million (Dh429.6m) buy, with huge commitments on long-contract wages for a 33-year-old.
Juventus want that man, Ronaldo, to make as significant a jump for them as he did on the night in Moscow when he leapt high to put United ahead in a rare all-English European Cup final against Chelsea.
Juve are seeking the jump from contenders to world-beaters. Defeated in the 2015 final by Barcelona, the Serie A champions then lost the 2017 final to Real Madrid, for who Ronaldo scored twice, collecting the fourth of his five winners’ medals.
The following season, he scored three times against Juventus, one from a spectacular overhead volley and another the late, winning penalty in a see-saw quarter-final on the way to Madrid’s third Champions League success in a row.
Some clues about whether Ronaldo can be the difference between the Juve of near-misses and and a Juve ready for a first European Cup coronation since 1996 and about whether Italy’s best can genuinely challenge Spain’s, will emerge tonight, where La Liga takes on Serie A across two marquee fixtures. Ronaldo’s presence, and his absence, will be under scrutiny.
At the Bernabeu stadium, Madrid begin their defence of the title without their long-time talisman and faced with a Roma who last season flew the flag for an Italian renaissance, overwhelming Barcelona on the way to the semi-final. And in Valencia, Ronaldo makes his European bow in his Juventus No 7 jersey.
He landed back in Spain yesterday relieved, after a weekend when he struck his first goals for his new club, an event that had been frustratingly slow to come for a man so prolific.
On his fourth outing for Juve in Serie A he was the difference between victory and the club’s 100 per cent record ending.
Juve won 2-1, thanks to Ronaldo pouncing on a loose ball in the six-yard box, and then, encouragingly, finding a precision that has been missing from his game so far in Italy, with a angled, left-footed finish.
“I had a real urge to score,” said Ronaldo of his breakthrough. “I had been a bit anxious ever since leaving Real Madrid, so I’m happier now.
"I’ve worked hard and I knew the goals would come eventually. I’m getting a lot of help adapting to Italian football from my teammates.”
Can he help them break their glass-ceiling in Europe. “I hope I can. I will have to work very hard because it is a hard cup to win.”
There will be shrill whistling from the steep grandstands of the Mestalla when Ronaldo’s name is announced.
This has always been a productive venue for Ronaldo, whose goal won a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona in Valencia seven years back and whose visits there in La Liga have been a menace for the home team: Eight goals in eight trips.
Three hundred and fifty kilometres away, Madrid, under a new head coach, Julen Lopetegui having replaced Zinedine Zidane, are defining a fresh style, post-Ronaldo.
It involves greater responsibility on Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, promotion for the gifted Marco Asensio. But on the evidence so far, it means a lower volume of shots on goal, and, judging by Saturday’s 1-1 draw, which spoiled Madrid’s 100 per cent record under Lopetegui in La Liga, some flaws to iron out in their finishing.
Are they missing Ronaldo, Madrid’s long-serving Marcelo was asked on Saturday? “People will always look back, to Zidane, to when Raul was our goalscorer, to Iker Casillas in goal.”
True, but tonight nostalgia for Ronaldo will be viewed across Spain with a clearer lens than other former Madrid greats.
Updated: September 18, 2018 05:00 PM