People said it was the unbreakable defence. Well, Cristiano Ronaldo broke it. On Gareth Bale’s patch, Real Madrid’s star turn moved his talent in a new direction, inspiring this 4-1 beating of Juventus with his patience and cunning as well as his old close-quarter precision.
In the popular imagination, Ronaldo is a counter-attacker – a sprinter-finisher; but at 32, and against an iron Juve rearguard, he blended his lethal finishing with added movement and calculation. He scored two of Real’s goals and planted constant doubt in a team that had come through the competition unbeaten. Any top defender hoping he will be less of a handful when his speed drops off will have wept to see him break Juve’s spirit.
Across 13 years and 21 trophies, Ronaldo has changed games at will. He changed this one, too, with the the first and third goals on the pitch where he cut Millwall to shreds in an FA Cup final when he was a showboating 19 year-old.
The exquisite touch Ronaldo placed on a Luka Modric cross 63 minutes into this final will rank with his greatest goals: for its timing, skill and ruthless intent. Ronaldo was a long way short of the near post when he cushioned the ball round Gianluigi Buffon, one of the world’s great keepers. Cardiff, where this final was beautifully staged, went quiet to acknowledge the scorer’s unfailing gift for shaping games in his own image.
Before that, Real had already taken the lead again with a second deflected shot – this time by Casemiro. Ronaldo had scored the first. The fine balance between defence and attack in this very good Juve side was being broken down. Their iron back-three was cracking.
Cristiano Ronaldo | In numbers
600 – Goals scored by Ronaldo for Sporting, Manchester United, Madrid and Portugal.
5 – For Sporting, his first club.
118 – Goals for United across 292 appearances and six quite brilliant seasons.
406 – … and counting, for Madrid.
71 – He is also the record scorer for Portugal.
4 – Times the Ballon d’Or winner.
5 – League titles spread across United and Real.
4 – Champions League titles, one with United and three for Madrid.
42 – Hat-tricks for Madrid.
51 – Goals for Real Madrid this season.
It took a while. Six minutes after Ronaldo put Madrid ahead from a sweetly-worked move and marginally-deflected shot, Mario Mandzukic responded with a spectacular chest-down and hooked finish. From the moment hostilities commenced, Juve’s front-line of Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain were intent on dragging Real’s forwards off their throne.
“One chance – bang,” lip readers reported Ronaldo as saying, after he had beaten Buffon in front of Juve’s supporters in the 21st minute. A bit premature. Italy’s champions, desperate not to lose five of these finals in a row, had other ideas, and inflicted intense pressure on Zidane’s men. This season Juventus moved ahead of Bayern Munich as the main bulwark to Spanish power, and can progress from this, if they can add to a strong base.
After a tight first-half though, Real ran away with it. In their purple people eater strip, they added a fourth through the substitute Marco Asencio. Naturally, Ronaldo’s name boomed around the stadium as officially the game’s outstanding player.
In 2004 on this grass, his main problem was Dennis Wise, the Millwall player-manager and threshing machine, in an FA Cup final Manchester United won easily. He returned 13 years later to confront the subtler but no less resolute stopping tactics of a Juventus team previously tough to score against but also mighty hard to keep at bay.
The image of Ronaldo clipping a rabona cross to Paul Scholes in a 3-0 FA Cup win that brought the first of those 21 trophies came coursing back as Real’s perennial match-winner claimed a stage that was laid out for Bale, schooled four miles from this stadium in the Cardiff suburb of Whitchurch.
Bale’s recent problems with injury prompted his manager, Zinedine Zidane, to favour Isco alongside Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, while the local hero watched from the bench until 15 minutes from time. Imagine the angst that stirred in Bale. From the sidelines he observed Ronaldo sustain early blows. In the 11th minute he was bundled over in the box by Giorgio Chiellini but a penalty was not given. Six minutes later he was dispossessed and flattened on the edge of Juve’s area. One of those nights? We should know by now: Ronaldo does not ‘do’ discouraged.
His first goal – Real’s 500th in the competition – made him the first to score in three Champions League finals (2008, 2014, 2017). This season, Ronaldo reached 400 goals for his club and a hundred in Champions League action. In this final instalment, he joined Clarence Seedorf as a record four-time winner of the competition. Real, with 12 crowns, are the first since 1990 to retain the European title, and the first under the current Champions League format.
Zidane is the first coach to grip the hot potato of Ronaldo’s advancing age. Until now, no manager had dared tell him he needs to miss games to preserve his powers. Yet Ronaldo now says: “I’m at the best level physically as I have in the last few seasons because I have played less. It is down to the intelligence of Zidane and my team-mates.”
Zidane returned the compliment in Cardiff: “Cristiano is a good person, because he’s worried; he worries about the others. What this gives the team is that he always wants to win. He has something inside; he’s a born leader, especially on the pitch.”
If you scripted a striker’s nightmare, it would look a lot like Chiellini, Bonucci and Brazil, with Buffon in nets. Yet Ronaldo wore them down, outsmarted them, made them bow to his talent. Dennis Wise made no impression on him here. Nor, in the end, could Juventus.