Cristiano Ronaldo is not prepared to halt his own dominance having inspired Real Madrid to European glory yet again, writes Tom Adams in Cardiff.
“The numbers, they don't lie,” said a slightly surly Cristiano Ronaldo after he received the man-of-the-match award for the Champions League final. The numbers also speak for themselves. Which is lucky, as we are running out of words with which to describe this brilliant, devastating footballer.
It was unclear precisely what numbers Ronaldo was referring to after collecting his award from Sir Alex Ferguson and sitting himself down in front of the microphones of the global media, roughly an hour after helping to steer his side to a 4-1 destruction of Juventus in Cardiff.
Was it three? The number of Champions League finals he had scored in after playing a one-two with Dani Carvajal to fire a shot home, via a touch off Leonardo Bonucci, in the first half. Was it 600? The number of goals he registered in his remarkable career for club and country when he made a darting run to the best post to meet a cross from Luka Modric and guide a second goal past the great Gianluigi Buffon. Was it four? The number of European Cups he has now won. Or was it six? The number of successive seasons in which he has hit double fixtures in the most exacting club competition of all.
Most likely he was referring to them all, the component parts of the equation which reveals his genius. There is no other word for a player who imposes himself on huge game after huge game and seems incapable of doing anything but scoring when it really counts.
Ronaldo has won three of three finals with Madrid, as well as one of two during his time at Manchester United. This was his most impressive. In another 4-1, against Atletico Madrid in 2014, Ronaldo scored a superfluous goal in extra-time after a game in which his overall contribution was disappointing. Two years later, against Atleti again, this time in Milan, he scored the winning penalty in the shootout but was similarly subdued. This was not the case in Cardiff.
Aided by Zinedine Zidane’s prescient decision to carefully manage the minutes he has played this season, even at the cost of effectively conceding the Pichichi trophy, Ronaldo has been building to this point for months, in contrast to previous finals when he has appeared burned out. “I have prepared myself to be well in the final phase of the league and the Champions League,” he said. “I scored important goals as well so I am very happy.”
Ronaldo does not dominate games in the manner he used to. After a formative spell as a tricksy winger he emerged from his chrysalis a great all round, all-action forward. Now Ronaldo 3.0 has shed some of his weaponry, specialising as a penalty box predator. These skills were on show in Cardiff: both of his strikes were opportunistic, first-time finishes.
One thing Ronaldo has always been, however, is a provocateur. That will never change. His name was whistled loudest by Juventus fans when the teams were announced and harsh shrills cascaded down from the stands once again after 11 minutes when he threw himself to the ground under minimal contact from Giorgio Chiellini in a bid to win a penalty. Seven minutes later, Dani Alves, a former rival at Barcelona, seemed to take special pleasure in dumping him to the ground.
In fact, the rest of the first half was a testing period for Ronaldo. After Mario Mandzukic thoroughly upstaged him with his wonder goal, Ronaldo was visibly annoyed, shaking his head. Soon after he tried an acrobatic effort of his own in a bid to respond to the Croatian’s moment of magic, but his shot caught a defender. When he then sent a diving header flying wildly off target from an Isco cross, you wondered if it wouldn't be his night. But you shouldn't have. It's always his night.
His second goal, carefully constructed by the his team and finished in style, made it 3-1 and effectively sealed the trophy for Madrid. In just over a year, Ronaldo has won two Champions Leagues as well as La Liga and, with Portugal, the European Championship. It has been, Ronaldo said, “an amazing season again. We win trophies and this is one of the best moments in my career - I have the opportunity to say that every year! But this year was amazing again.”
Still, he has been whistled by Madrid fans on occasion this season and it was raising this discordant note on a night of triumph which promoted Ronaldo’s most forthright response. "(This is) not the moment to speak about that - most important is that I did again an amazing season, me and my team-mates. I think people don’t have words to criticise because the numbers, they don’t lie.”
It is true they paint a compelling picture. But there is, by his own account, one number Ronaldo is trying to convince himself he can ignore: 32. His age.
“I'll go as far as I am allowed to go,” he said, as Ferguson looked on, a master of longevity himself. “Age is just a number. I feel like a young boy.”
There will surely be more nights like this. More ‘best moments’ to illuminate one of the great sporting careers. Ronaldo isn't ready to stop counting.