Cristiano Ronaldo may find goals harder to come by in the land of tough-as-teak defenders
His Brazilian namesake found Serie A's meanest defenders a hard nut to crack in Milan, and Juventus' rivals have been buy over the summer bolstering their squads in a bid to deny the Portuguese striker's new employers an eight-straight scudetto
Twenty-one summers ago, a superstar called Ronaldo moved from Spanish football to Serie A in a transfer the buying club regarded as a watershed moment in their journey to the summit of the game. The new man came clutching a Ballon d’Or. Alas, he would spend much of his time in Italy clutching an injured knee.
That man was the other Ronaldo, the Brazilian, or the real Ronaldo as some observers of a certain generation still refer to him, mindful that just because the second decade of this millenium has been wonderfully entertained by a gifted player with the same name, we shouldn’t forget how thrilling a striker Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima was in his heyday. Or rather, in his heydays. He would come back from the injuries that troubled his time with Inter Milan quite heroically, once he joined Real Madrid in 2002, five years after he had moved from Barcelona to Inter.
The fact that Ronaldo Mark I played his most carefree football outside Italy, as a 20 year old at Barca, and then as a centre-forward carefully rationing his bursts of speed with Madrid, tells its own story. The Brazilian Ronaldo - who announced on Tuesday he had recovered from a worrying episode of ill-health that put him in hospital over the weekend - suffered damaging knee problems while trying to twist through tight Serie A defences in Italy, where his body took a fearful, wearying battering.
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At that time, the Italian top flight was hugely prestigious, but also had a reputation for cultivating the toughest man-markers. The Brazilian Ronaldo, with his adhesive ball control, and a combination of power and speed the young France striker Kylian Mbappe sometimes brings to mind, put fear into the most accomplished of them. The likes of Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini, or Juventus's Paolo Montero, or Parma’s steely sentries of the era, Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro, combatted his brilliance with muscle.
Serie A’s reputation as the best league in the world has fallen since then, but its pride in its tough-as-teak defenders remains. The latest Ronaldo to arrive in Italy, amid great fanfare following his transfer from Real Madrid to Juventus, may be a more mature footballer that his namesake was in 1997, but he is likely to find the attention he draws from certain markers suffocating. He will have looked at the fixture list for his new adventure with Juventus and perhaps noted that, after Saturday's debut at Chievo, Lazio come to Turin the following weekend, armed with a couple of seasoned combatants in their back line, in the shape of Senad Lulic and Martin Caceres, who kept Ronaldo very quiet a few weekends ago when Uruguay knocked Portugal out of the World Cup.
Ronaldo's good luck is that Leo Bonucci, perhaps the best of current Italian centre-backs, has rejoined Juventus from Milan, though the AC Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso will be growling in Juve’s direction over the coming months. The Milan-Juve rivalry has an added dimension now: Gonzalo Higuain's loan move from Juve to Milan for the season ahead is a direct consequence of Ronaldo’s landing at Juve. Higuain has some points to prove.
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Ronaldo may well find goals are harder to eke out in Italy for even the best strikers. In the last nine years, the Pichichi, the award for the leading scorer in Spain’s Primera Liga, has always gone to a man - and mostly that’s been Lionel Messi or Ronaldo - with more than 30 goals over the campaign; in Serie A the Capocannoniere, the equivalent, has only once in that period scored more than 30. That was Higuain, for Napoli, when he struck 36 goals in 2015/16.
Napoli pushed Juventus close last season in the title race, and played perhaps the most thrilling football of anybody in the country. With Carlo Ancelotti replacing the departed Maurizio Sarri as manager, Napoli should be trusted to preserve their attacking emphasis, although with fixtures against Lazio, Milan, Fiorentina within their first month and a trip to Juventus on matchday seven, the new man has a demanding lift-off.
Other obstacles in the way of Ronaldo's claiming a scudetto to go alongside his Premier League and Liga titles? Roma, Uefa Champions League semi-finalists last season, have been active in the transfer market, bringing the enigmatic Javier Pastore back to Serie A from Paris Saint-Germain, and hiring World Cup winner Steven Nzonzi, though they may miss goalkeeper Alisson Becker and midfielder Radja Nainggolan. Nainggolan has taken his dynamism to an ambitious Inter, whose squad looks as equipped as anybody’s to get in the way of the predicted march of Juventus - and the second great Ronaldo to pitch up in Italy - to an eighth successive league crown.
Updated: August 15, 2018 12:44 PM