DUBAI: Never write off Cristiano Ronaldo.
Across a single match, a season or his entire career, doubt him and he will make you regret it.
On Friday, the 35-year-old almost pulled off his favorite trick once again.
Coming into the Champions League round-of-16 match against Lyon a goal down from the first leg, Juventus were still widely expected to turn the tie around in Turin.
But things didn’t go according to plan, with the French side’s early lead meaning Juventus needed three goals to progress.
Cue the Cristiano Ronaldo show. After all, this was the Champions League, a competition that at times over the last decade seemed to exist solely for his benefit.
He has played in 18 of its 27 seasons, scored a record 130 goals — 67 in the knockout stages — and is the only man to score in three finals. Oh, and won the competition a record five times, once with Manchester United and an astonishing four times in five years with Real Madrid. There are many other minor records.
If you can remember Europe’s top competition without Ronaldo, chances are you are approaching your 30s, and can recall a world without smartphones and social media, and one in which his current club coach, Zinedine Zidane, reigned as the world’s best footballer.
It is the near certainty of success Ronaldo brings that convinced Juventus to buy him in the summer of 2018. Winning Serie A again was practically a given, but it was the Champions League that chairman Andrea Agnelli craved most, having failed to win the competition since beating Ajax on penalties in 1996.
After two seasons of trying, it’s fair to say that project has failed. On Friday night, time seemed to have caught up with player and club.
Except it was not the Portuguese legend who had let Juventus down. It was the other way round.
In an absorbing match shaped by two questionable penalty decisions, and even without hitting the heights of his greatest years, Ronaldo remained his team’s greatest hope. He won and scored a penalty, missed two headers, set up several chances for his teammates and scored a quite extraordinary goal to bring the Italian champions to within one goal of progressing to the quarterfinals
There was a sense of inevitability about proceedings. We have seen Ronaldo do this time and again during his career. Especially with Real Madrid.
And what could be more Ronaldo than scoring yet another hat-trick to rescue a seemingly impossible situation yet again?
Even in his short time with the Old Lady, he had shown his unique ability to deliver in the biggest of games. Last season, most people had written off Juventus after a 2-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano, only for Ronaldo to score a hat-trick in the return at the Allianz Stadium.
Unlike previous years at Madrid, however, this escape did not inspire a glorious march to the Champions League title. In what was thought to be the easier half of the draw at the time, Juventus went on to lose to Ajax in the quarterfinal.
This season, they did not even make that far, depriving Ronaldo of the chance to play out the rest of the competition in his native Portugal. It is a failure that might now see coach Maurizio Sarri lose his job after only one season.
More worrying for Juventus supporters is that this great era, which has seen nine consecutive Serie A titles, seems to be coming to an end.
Since the restart of a season after the coronavirus break, Juve have been poor. Luckily for Sarri’s team, challenges by Inter Milan and Lazio could not be maintained, otherwise the Turin club’s two wins from eight matches could have resulted in a truly disastrous season.
Juventus have looked a shadow of the team that has dominated Italy over the last decade and reached the Champions League final twice, losing to Leo Messi’s Barcelona in 2015 and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in 2017.
Throughout this inconsistent season, Ronaldo has been Juventus’ standout player by some distance.
Paulo Dybala has continued to suffer from injuries. The fabled defensive partnership of 35-year-old Giorgio Chiellini and 33-year-old Leonardo Bonucci is slowly being ravaged by the passage of time. And new signing Adrien Rabiot barely contributed until the closing weeks of the season. Ronaldo, on the other hand, has scored 37 goals in all competitions, breaking a Juventus record held by Ferenc Hirzer for 94 years.
How Juventus, specifically Agnelli, react to the latest Champions League disappointment could determine whether Sarri, this squad and Ronaldo have one more shot at the biggest competition of all next season. The odds are against it.
At 35 Ronaldo looks to have lost little of his hunger and genius to step up just when he is needed. But time is running out quickly, and the chances of another Champions League triumph look much slimmer today than they did on Friday morning.
That evening, Ronaldo, as ever, did his bit. Juventus didn’t.