Time catches up with Ronaldo and Juventus in quest for Champions League

Juventus' Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo reacts during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match between Juventus and Olympique Lyonnais. (AFP)
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Updated 08 August 2020

Time catches up with Ronaldo and Juventus in quest for Champions League

  • 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

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.


Al-Nassr on target for first Asian crown

Updated 28 September 2020

Al-Nassr on target for first Asian crown

  • The Riyadh giants defeated compatriots Al-Taawoun 1-0 on Sunday in the second round to be rewarded with another all-Saudi clash in the quarter-final
  • Now only Al-Ahli, who finished third in the SPL season, a full 14 points behind Al-Nassr, stand between Rui Vitoria’s men and a place in the last four

RIYADH: Al-Nassr may have missed out on the 2020 Saudi Pro League (SPL) title but they are now regarded as favorites to win a first continental crown after rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Sadd both fell by the wayside in the AFC Champions League.

The Riyadh giants defeated compatriots Al-Taawoun 1-0 on Sunday in the second round to be rewarded with another all-Saudi clash in the quarter-final. Now only Al-Ahli, who finished third in the SPL season, a full 14 points behind Al-Nassr, stand between Rui Vitoria’s men and a place in the last four.

“When you get to this stage of a major competition like this then you don’t mind who you play as every team is a strong one,” the Portuguese coach said.

“The game against Al-Taawoun was tough and the game against Al-Ahli will be tough. We will have to be at our best.”

Al-Nassr are looking strong at both ends of the field. Moroccan goal-machine Abderrazak Hamdallah finally broke the deadlock on Sunday evening with 15 minutes remaining, firing home a low shot from close range.

The striker, who won the 2019 SPL golden boot while propelling Al-Nassr to the title, has now equaled the tournament record set by Shanghai SIPG’s Hulk, of scoring in nine consecutive Champions League appearances.

“We know that if he gets a chance then he will score. Whether the chance comes in the first or last minute, it doesn’t matter but, of course, this is a team effort,” added Vitoria.

As clinical as Al-Nassr are in front of goal, they are solid at the back, conceding just two goals in the five games that have taken place since the tournament restarted in mid-September.

Both Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli won their respective groups but the Jeddah club did not look as convincing as their Riyadh rivals, losing two of the four games they had to play after Al-Wahda of Abu Dhabi had to withdraw over positive test results at the club for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

The second-round win over Shabab Al-Ahli was as tight as could be as the Saudi team triumphed in a penalty shootout over the Dubai club after the game had finished 1-1.

“We had no preference as to whether we would play Al-Nassr or Al-Taawoun,” said Al-Ahli coach Vladan Milojevic on Monday. “It is exciting to play another team from the same country in the quarter-final. We know each other well and it will be good for the fans too. Any team at this stage is strong.”

Should Al-Nassr progress, the semi-final should hold no fears. Defending Asian champions Al-Hilal were regarded as the favorites from the West Zone (the tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final) but after topping their group, the title-holders were forced to withdraw by the Asian Football Confederation last Wednesday after the squad was hit by a COVID-19 outbreak.

While much of Asia sympathized with Al-Hilal, the absence of the current Asian and Saudi Arabian champions will not be mourned too much at Al-Nassr.

On Sunday, another strong favorite was eliminated. Al-Sadd of Qatar are coached by former Barcelona and Spain legend Xavi and boast former Arsenal striker Santi Cazorla, South Korean internationals Nam Tae-hee and Jung Woo-yung and a number of Qatar’s 2019 Asian Cup-winning squad in their ranks. The 2011 champions, who finished just behind Al-Nassr in the group stage, were expected to go far.

Instead, they lost 1-0 to Persepolis. The Iranians will take on Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan, who defeated Esteghlal 2-1, another team from Tehran, in the other quarter final. Both teams have plenty of Asian experience and knowhow but neither have the star power of Al-Hilal and Al-Sadd.

Should Al-Nassr get to the final then they will face what could be a very tired East Asian opponent. The group stage resumes in mid-November on the opposite side of the continent and that means teams from Japan, China, Australia, or South Korea would arrive for the final after playing as many as nine games in the space on the back of domestic commitments.

The route to a first Asian crown for Al-Nassr is looking clearer than it has ever done though Al-Ahli will have something to say about that on Wednesday.