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

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

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.


Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community
Updated 16 January 2021

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community
  • The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the US
  • The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in Detroit

NEW YORK: Robert Saleh has made history that extends far beyond any football field.
The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the country, celebrating the first known Muslim American to hold that position in the NFL.
That’s a source of great pride for a group that has been generally underrepresented in the league’s on-field leadership roles.
“It’s something that shows the growing diversity of our nation, the inclusion we’re trying to achieve at all levels of our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And I think it’s a very positive sign.”
The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita.
“I think he’s just a trailblazer for a lot of coaches who are Muslim, to let them know that they do have a chance to be a head coach,” said Lions offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, a practicing Muslim who has played in the NFL for eight seasons — including his first two with the Jets.
“He shows them you do have a chance to be a defensive coordinator, you do have a chance to grow up and have a job at the professional level,” Aboushi added. “As long as you’re professional and you’re passionate about it like he is, I think a lot of people will look to him as a trailblazer, as far as everyone feeling like they could do it themselves and it’s an attainable dream.”
After Saleh’s college playing career as a tight end at Northern Michigan ended, he got his start in coaching by working as an assistant at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia before being hired as a defensive intern by the Houston Texans in 2005.
Then came stints with Seattle and Jacksonville before Saleh became San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 2017, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl last year with his No. 2-ranked unit. He was a popular candidate among the seven teams looking for a new coach this offseason, and quickly emerged as the favorite for the Jets job.
Saleh, known for his energy on the sideline and being well-liked by players, impressed the Jets during his first remote interview. He was flown in a few days later for an in-person meeting with Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas at the team’s facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.
After a two-day visit, Saleh left to meet with Philadelphia for its coaching vacancy — but the Jets knew they found their new coach. The team announced Thursday night the sides reached an agreement in principle.
“As a pioneer in the sports world, Saleh will serve as an inspiration to many young American Muslims,” Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter, said in email to The Associated Press. “In addition to the positive impact that he’ll have on Muslims, Saleh’s presence in the field and on the screen will remind the rest of America that Muslims are a part of the fabric of this nation and proudly contribute to society. It’s a step toward tearing down walls and building bridges.
“Welcome to Jersey, brother!”
Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director of CAIR’s New York chapter, congratulated the Jets and Saleh for what he called a “historic hiring in the National Football League.” He’s optimistic it’s a sign of increasing inclusion and recognition of the Muslim community.
“For all the Muslim youth who may be told they don’t belong or can’t do something because of how they pray, we hope that when they see Mr. Saleh on national television, they will say to themselves that anything is possible and will reach for the stars,” Mohamed said in an email to the AP. “We hope Mr. Saleh’s hiring opens the door for other American Muslims in sports.”
Saleh is believed to be the third Arab American to become a head coach in the NFL. He follows Abe Gibron, who led Chicago from 1972-74, and Rich Kotite, who coached the Eagles (1991-94) and Jets (1995-96) — both of whom also had Lebanese roots.
Saleh is also just the fourth active NFL head coach who is a minority, joining Miami’s Brian Flores, Washington’s Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.
“Robert Saleh has made history on the field and off,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Friday night. “Now he’s knocking down barriers in our own backyard. Congrats, Coach!”
While Saleh’s focus will be on restoring the Jets to respectability and not necessarily being an inspiration, he has provided a path for others to someday follow.
“Any person in a new job, their first goal is going to be performance in their job,” Hooper said. “But I think a secondary consideration might be being an example to Muslim and Arab American youth around the country, that this kind of inclusion and respect for diversity is possible.
“But I don’t think he got the job because of his ethnic or religious background. He got this job because he’s good at what he does.”