There were still more than two hours of football left to be played in Juventus’ Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid when Cristiano Ronaldo delivered the final word. A brilliant bicycle kick stunned the Allianz Stadium to silence for a moment, before 40,000 fans rose to applaud.
What else can you do in the face of such outrageous talent? Madrid’s supporters had done the same for Juve’s own Alessandro Del Piero a decade earlier after his brace sank their team at the Bernabeu. It is no small feat to make such an impression in the home stadiums of teams as well-acquainted with success as these two.
Massimiliano Allegri is fond of reminding us that players, not managers, win football games. The Juventus manager had things so right in the previous round of this competition, his second-half substitutions helping to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win away to Tottenham at Wembley. And yet, rather than accept any praise, he deflected.
“I just do a bit of damage,” he quipped. “And then every now and then I try to fix it.”
No amount of repair work could extend his team’s run in Europe this season. Ronaldo had already opened the scoring in Turin before he extended Madrid’s advantage with the outrageous overhead strike. Eight minutes later, Marcelo made it 3-0 to the visitors. Paulo Dybala was sent off for Juventus in between.
The easy conclusion to draw would be that the Italian champions remain the same team that lost to Madrid by the same three-goal margin (albeit 4-1, instead of 3-0) at last year’s final in Cardiff. Easy, but perhaps not very just.
Juventus wasn’t presumptuous here as it had been 10 months earlier, believing they had nothing to envy of these opponents. “We felt like we were on a par with them,” Gianluigi Buffon said earlier this week. “That was the first and biggest mistake that we made.”
There was a greater urgency to Juventus’ play this time around, pressing higher and longer, seeking direct paths to goal when possession was won. Juventus took only one fewer shot in the first 45 minutes of this game than it had in the entire 90 the last time around.
More tangibly, Allegri corrected a mistake he had made in the final when he trusted in the experience of Andrea Barzagli on the right of his defence. The 36-year-old had been run ragged by Marcelo. This time, Juventus lined up with Mattia De Sciglio at full-back, and Douglas Costa ahead of him. For a time, their greater pace and willingness to get forward restricted Marcelo’s attack.
And yet, none of it mattered as Juventus still had no answers for the one player it most needed to subdue. Ronaldo’s opening strike arrived in just the third minute, finding space on the edge of the six-yard box to convert Isco’s cross.
Should the marking have been tighter on a player of such obvious talent? How badly did Juventus miss Mehdi Benatia on an occasion such as this? The Moroccan has been their most consistent defender this season, yet was absent through suspension.
In the end, though, it feels futile to even consider the question. Ronaldo scored because Ronaldo scores. This is the 10th consecutive Champions League game in which he has found the net – yet another personal record to add to the collection. His 14 goals in this season’s tournament are six more than the next-most prolific player.
Almost single-handedly, he has ensured that Buffon will retire without a Champions League winner’s medal. The goalkeeper has kept his cards close to his chest in recent weeks, but previously said he would quit at the end of this season unless Juventus won the big-eared trophy and gave him a chance to compete in the European Super Cup and Club World Cup for the first time.
No other person has done more to deny him that opportunity. Eight of Ronaldo’s last nine shots on target against the Juventus ‘keeper have ended up in the back of the net. And when the finishes are as good as the ones we saw in Turin on Tuesday, you can hardly hold Buffon at fault.
Great players win football matches, just as Allegri says. And one, in particular, does it more often in the Champions League than anyone else.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)