There are some things that Cristiano Ronaldo cannot do any more, like taking the ball on half-way, skipping past four opponents from a standing start and putting it in the net. That is a young man’s game, it’s what Gareth Bale, at 27, is meant to do for Real Madrid. It is why they are so desperate to sign Eden Hazard too.
But footballers can only do what their bodies allow them to, and the genius of post-30 Ronaldo has been to lose his burst but retain his edge. Players often talk about adapting their game as if it is easy but in reality Ronaldo has managed it better than most.
Wednesday night at the Allianz Arena was a testament to how dangerous this Ronaldo can still be. He does not have the running power of Bale but he is a killer in the box, more so than any other player Real Madrid have. Both of his goals against Bayern Munich were a testament to his instincts, his ruthlessness and his supreme technical finishing.
What made it so painful for Bayern is that Carlo Ancelotti thought that he had Ronaldo shackled in the first half, and he was right. “We controlled him very well until Javi Martinez was sent off,” he said. “We tried to push up a lot with Philipp Lahm on the right. At the beginning Cristiano didn’t have a lot of chances. But later he showed all his qualities, Cristiano is always very decisive.”
Ultimately Ronaldo was too good for the plans that Bayern had set for him. Zidane spoke afterwards about how Ronaldo, who started on the wing in a 4-3-3, had scored two poacher’s finishes when playing as a centre-forward. “When Cristiano is in the centre, it is the position where he has to shoot,” Zidane said. “He has that virtue to be where the ball comes.”
That is exactly it, the striker’s instinct that Ronaldo has honed over the last few years to keep himself on top of the game. He might not be contributing an awful lot else any more but when he can still be relied on to deliver the big moments in the big games, what else really matters?
Ronaldo’s 20s were marked by the longest productive purple patch in football history. His unique mix of athleticism and precision delivered stacks of goals every season, beating 50 in all competitions six seasons in a row. Even Lionel Messi has been known to drop below the 50-mark at times.
But Ronaldo’s 30s are different. He cannot produce as much anymore, so he has to focus on moments. In 2016 he struck the penalty that clinched the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid, even after physically struggling during the match. That summer he guided Portugal to a historic European Championship, captaining the side and showing a leadership, especially when injured in the final, that not everyone thought him capable of. Those two triumphs earned him his fourth Ballon d’Or and perhaps the most surprising, because of the widely-held suspicion that when he lost his power he would lose his edge.
That is not what has happened at all. On Wednesday night he scored his 99th and 100th European goals, a remarkable testament to his productivity, his longevity and now, in perhaps the penultimate phase of his career, to his efficiency. Some players lose their hunger towards the end but even now, with four Ballon d’Ors and three Champions Leagues, it is not hard to tell that Ronaldo wants to keep going.
“He was happy in the dressing room,” Zidane said afterwards. “But not fully happy because he had the chance to score the third too. He has so much ambition.”