Ronaldo staves off decline by masterfully reinventing himself

With Gigi Buffon winning everything in his career except the Champions League, Craig Forrest looks for him to take down Cristiano Ronaldo in a matchup of the brightest stars.

Should Cristiano Ronaldo win his third Champions League title in the space of just four years on Saturday, there will be a stark contrast between the image of the Portuguese lifting the famous trophy this year and last.

It’s an illustration of how the world’s best player has taken extreme measures to stay at the very top of the sport.

It’s most noticeable around the neck and shoulders of the Real Madrid number seven. Not so long ago Ronaldo was a hulking mass of muscle, a picture of sporting dedication achieved in the gym as well as on the pitch. Now, however, the Portuguese is much leaner. He has shed muscle mass in what has been a very deliberate effort.

This is all part of Ronaldo’s transformation from roaming winger to the focal point of Real Madrid’s attack. The Portuguese is still given the freedom to drop deep or run into the channels, but against Juventus in Saturday’s Champions League final in Cardiff he will most likely be used as part of an orthodox front two alongside Karim Benzema. 

Indeed, while Ronaldo had adapted as a player well before this season, it’s in the last few weeks and months that his transformation has been most apparent. The mercurial winger who first caught the imagination all those years ago at Manchester United is gone forever. The reinvention as a functional number nine of mechanical effectiveness is complete.

Ronaldo has always been one to seek advice on how to improve, and in this case, endure. He recognized that in previous seasons the demands and rigours of playing every match was taking its toll. It meant that by the end of each campaign, he was playing well below optimum fitness. When it mattered most, in the latter stages of the Champions League and in international tournaments, Ronaldo was a shadow of the force he was earlier in the season.

He was told to slim down, lose the muscle that for so long had made him so explosive. That mass was only weighing him down as he entered the twilight of his career, increasing the stress on his limbs and joints. He needed to be smarter, embarking on a programme that demanded more work on the treadmill and less with the weights.

It worked, with Ronaldo enjoying his best ever end to a campaign. The Portuguese comes into Saturday’s Champions League final having scored 14 goals in his last nine games. That record pushed Real Madrid over the line as they clinched their first La Liga championship since 2012, and also edged the Spanish giants past Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter finals and semifinals respectively. 

Even for a player with countless titles and four Ballon d’Or, these are new levels of ruthlessness. There are fewer moments of bombastic spectacle, his free kick record of late is abysmal, but never before has Ronaldo been so dependable on the big occasion. It’s why he is currently enjoying the best spell of his career at the age of 32.

Every season, every summer, the same question is asked of Ronaldo: When will the decline hit?

In truth, the decline started one or two years again, but by managing it in the manner he has the Portuguese is rendering it irrelevant. Not one Juventus player will consider the Ronaldo they’ll face on Saturday to be a player past his peak. Instead, they’ll see a player climbing another, different, peak as a different sort of threat. 

That is perhaps the greatest mark of Ronaldo as one of the best soccer players of all time – he has reinvented himself more frequently than Madonna, always finding a way to get the very best from his body. Another Champions League triumph on Saturday – the fourth of his career – would be testament to that.

What he has lost in muscle, Ronaldo has gained in so much more.

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