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Cristiano Ronaldo on the brink of 100 goals for Portugal

Juventus star aiming to put club form behind him and reach century for his country

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, centre, at training ahead of their match against Lithuania on Thursday and Luxembourg on Sunday. EPA
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, centre, at training ahead of their match against Lithuania on Thursday and Luxembourg on Sunday. EPA

Cristiano Ronaldo left the biggest fixture in the Italian calendar early on Sunday, provoking some raised eyebrows. He had been substituted less than a hour into Juventus’s 1-0 win over AC Milan and did not hang around until the end to see if his club would hold on to the lead his replacement, Paulo Dybala, had given them.

Perhaps Ronaldo was simply in a hurry to head off for an important week in his other role, as captain of Portugal, the reigning European champions, who may yet need to win both their remaining Group B qualifiers to avoid the play-off route to the Euro 2020 finals, though they will be encouraged by the way the fixtures have fallen, one tonight at home to Lithuania and another on Sunday in Luxembourg.

Ronaldo has scored five times against that pair already this season, and if he can take the same lordly attitude to these next two Portuguese-versus-punchbag contests, he will reach a magical number: 100 goals for his country. He is on 95; he was on 85 a mere six of his 162 caps ago.

That sort of goalscoring run - 10 goals in half a dozen games - was common enough in his club football when Ronaldo was at Real Madrid. It is less habitual since he joined Juventus in the summer of 2018, the first €100m (Dh 404m) footballer over the age of 30. For Juve, Ronaldo has registered a very respectable six times this season in 14 games, but just once in his last five games, the 96th-minute penalty that earned a 2-1 win against Genoa.

Yes, he was a matter of millimetres away from claiming a goal from a free-kick against Lokomotiv Moscow last week, Aaron Ramsey toeing the ball over the goalline, and, in doing so, risking a dark stare from his celebrated colleague.

Ramsey knows Ronaldo is not only pedantically possessive of all his remarkable goalscoring records but that he also likes any opportunity to burnish his former glow as a dead-ball virtuoso, especially now that Lionel Messi is making such an art of direct free-kicks. That used to be one area where Ronaldo was Messi’s undoubted superior. It no longer is.

At the weekend, Maurizio Sarri, the Juventus coach, dared suggest Ronaldo, 34, “has not been as his best”. Certainly, Sarri has not seen him as the likeliest Juve matchwinner when a tight contest needed settling. In Moscow, Ramsey’s early ‘stolen’ goal was matched by Lokomotiv’s Aleksey Miranchuk after 12 minutes, and after 70 minutes, still 1-1, Sarri began to make his changes. On came Douglas Costa, then Pablo Dybala, replacing Ronaldo with eight minutes to go. Deep into injury time, Costa struck the winner.

A similar pattern against Milan. This time, Ronaldo’s No 7 was the first up on the board, Sarri introducing Dybala as his replacement after 55 minutes in the fixture that matters more than any to traditionalist juventini or milanisti. Dybala’s goal settled the three points some ten minutes before Ronaldo reportedly harrumphed his way out of the Juventus Stadium.

Sarri explained both substitutions as a response to Ronaldo’s physical discomfort, and rolled out the praise. “We must be grateful that he made the sacrifice to play at all. He’s had a knock and if he over compensates he can damage his calf and thigh muscles.”

But Sarri also acknowledged that the comments Ronaldo appeared to make on being substituted against Milan were not expressed in the same, careful medical language. The Portuguese seemed to mutter something very crude towards the bench. “It’s only natural a player is going to be annoyed to have to leave the pitch,” said Sarri.

As a manager whose substitutions had yielded six points in four days, Sarri could live with the scorn from his star player and he attempted to defuse any sense of conflict by saying he did not find it disrespectful to Juve colleagues that Ronaldo had marched straight to the dressing-room and then out of the building.

In Portugal, there is, very famously, a very distinct, famous image of a substituted Ronaldo. He had to come off early, injured, in the final against France in Euro 2016 and, for much of what followed, he hung around very conspicuously indeed, almost as if he had appointed himself temporary head coach, barking instructions from the technical area, his thigh and knee bandaged, far more animated than Fernando Santos, who is the actual head coach.

Santos tolerated it. He has learned over time that, with Portugal, Ronaldo's role is something for Ronaldo to negotiate, not for his coach to dictate.

Updated: November 14, 2019 09:42 AM

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