Ronaldo a force of nature that not even Juve can stop


Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring during Saturday's final. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

By Richard Buxton

CARDIFF, WALES – No player can currently light up the biggest games and occasions like Cristiano Ronaldo.

For the first time in some considerable period, the Champions League delivered a final truly befitting of its grandiose stage – and it has Real Madrid’s talisman to thank above all others. He is a force of nature that even Europe’s most diligent defence struggled to contain for long in a 4-1 loss; a player for whom time appears to stand still despite the rapid advancement of age.

Juventus had only conceded three times in over 1,000 minutes of this season’s competition before they encountered their true Achilles’ heel – the first player to score in three consecutive European final appearances. Sporting blond highlights and strolling through the Old Lady’s defence at will, it felt as though Ronaldo was still the same, self-assured 19-year-old that first graced the National Stadium of Wales with Manchester United. Given the marked improvement of his continued striving for personal betterment, it was only a half-truth.

“Until the end” may be the Serie A champions’ mantra, but they had no option other than to surrender meekly with little more than 25 minutes of the second half remaining. Real had not merely overpowered them inside three minutes but pulverised them beyond redemption.

This was Juventus’ fifth Champions League final defeat in succession and one which ended the regular prominence of Italian clubs in lifting Europe’s top honour – a happening every seven years since Juve’s last triumph began the trend in 1996. It was an unbecoming end for Massimilliano Allegri’s side in a game they had both dominated at the outset and regained control after falling behind thanks to Mario Mandzukic’s acrobatic equaliser.

“It’s been an extraordinary season. We’ve won the league, the Italian cup and reached this final,” Allegri said post-match.

“In the first half we played beautifully; in the second, Real Madrid pressed the accelerator and we weren’t able to respond.

“Football can be a nightmare; Pjanic’s shot was deflected and so was Casemiro’s, and only one of them went in.

“In the run-up to the final it sounded like Juventus were the favourites that were playing against a team that was here in the final by chance. That was not the truth.”

Observing the flight of the ball on Mandzukic’s magical goal may have felt like something of an out-of-body experience for Zinedine Zidane in Cardiff’s technical area. His iconic volley in the 2002 final remains a strong reference point for football fans the world over, even 15 years on. It was not just the execution which typified the brilliance of Mandzukic’s overhead equaliser; Juve’s flawless one-touch movement in the build-up merited a lifeline back into a game and, in an era where such sights are becoming increasingly overanalysed, Mandzukic’s strike merits a similar degree of reverence to Zidane. History, however, never fully remembers the vanquished.

It will remember Zidane as the first coach since Arrigo Sacchi with AC Milan to win back-to-back European Cups. Florentino Perez’s pet project is becoming both his most successful and, potentially, longest lasting. Modern history dictates that a manager, at any given time, is often not long for life at the Santiago Bernabeu. Clashing ideals with Los Blancos’ hierarchy have regularly signalled the end to even those that deliver on normally cast-iron guarantees of major silverware.

Even Perez came under fire, with an entire stadium demanding his resignation just weeks before he made an expected if still somewhat left-field move. Appointing Zidane represented a gamble at a time when his president needed a miracle. To suggest Perez was trigger-happy, having held the dubious honour of hiring and firing 11 of Real’s 19 managers to hold the position in the previous 21 years, would be an understatement.

But something in the former French playmaker’s 17-month tenure appears to have not only saved Perez but soothed him in ways that others could not. Ending a five-year wait to win La Liga tends to have that effect; so, too, does successive European crowns. A vested interest may be also at the heart of Perez’s satisfaction, having personally facilitated Zidane’s route into the most difficult coaching role in world football since hanging up his boots.

The original ‘Galactico’ as a player, the Frenchman is now setting the standard in the dugout. Ironically, it was his spell with Juventus which allowed Zidane to become the architect of his former club’s downfall here in Cardiff.

“The connection between this group of players is fantastic,” Zidane stated.

“When you have that in your squad, plus talent, you have a good chance. We’ve worked very hard all season and everyone’s been important – that’s been the key for us this season.

“I’m very happy and grateful to this great club for having given me this opportunity to coach these fantastic players. I’m really happy. I almost feel like dancing!

“I owe that feeling to this club. I consider myself a ‘man of the house’ here, it’s the club of my heart. Now it’s important to enjoy what we’ve done.”

The freshness of a playing career which ended barely a decade ago has also been kind with a playing career both fresher in the memory and more distinguished than other, ill-fated Madrid alumni that took the reins, such as Rafael Benitez and Jose Antonio Camacho. Fittingly, it was two years ago to the day that Benitez delivered his inaugural address at the Bernabeu ahead of an abject five-month spell which paved the way for the current, trophy-laden era under his successor.

Fortune has also favoured him in possessing Ronaldo at the peak of his seemingly limitless powers. Appreciation, however, has not always been forthcoming, not least with those for whom familiarity has bred contempt. Whistles and catcalling have provided the soundtrack whenever Midas’ touch has eluded him in front of a demanding home support. Public pleas have fallen on deaf ears for a fan base that has at times proved difficult to appease.

“I’ll go as far as I’m allowed to go,” Ronaldo admitted.

“I’m very happy with this season: we’ve won the league, the Champions League. I am very happy we have a fantastic team with great individuals.

“I prepared myself to be fit in the final phase of the season and I managed to score important goals as well so I’m very happy.”

He added: “People have words to criticise because the numbers they don’t like.

“The most important thing was that we had an amazing season. Of course, it’s one of the best moments in my career.

“I can say it is an amazing year every year. I’m motivated I’m happy and I feel like a young boy [again].”

Accusations that he is governed solely by self-interest in his pursuit of a 600th career goal carry little weight when he stands not only as the highest-scoring Champions League player in the previous five seasons, now with 67, but also in producing the competition’s highest number of assists – 16 – in that time. It was the same reason why Gareth Bale was left kicking his heels until the 77th minute.

The Wales international’s image had been ubiquitous across his home town ahead of the final but an array of tie-ins with the tournament’s official sponsors were no guarantee of nepotism at a time when a tide of public opinion has begun to turn against him in Spain. Where he had once resembled Real’s bright future, he now faces the threat of becoming an increasingly peripheral figure; unable to step out of the shadow of the man he appeared destined to replace. It has not been through a lack of trying, though.

Sometimes there is simply no accounting for an unforeseen brilliance like Ronaldo.

Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Cardiff’s Principality Stadium.

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