CRISTIANO Ronaldo showed all over again why he’s the best player in the world. Real Madrid showed why they’re the best team in the world at the moment.
Ronaldo’s mesmeric reinvention as a centre forward this season has seen him put Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid to the sword and at the Principality Stadium here on Saturday, it was Juventus’ turn.
The Portuguese forward scored twice as Real became the first side in Champions League history to retain their title, a third in four years and a record-extending 12th overall, with a resounding 4-1 win over Juve, who conceded a goal more in 90 minutes in the Welsh capital than they had in their run to the showpiece.
Just that statistic shows the magnitude of Real’s victory. But it didn’t seem that the margin of their victory would be that big after the first half in which Mario Mandzukic’s sumptuous bicycle kick, which will go down as one of the greatest goals in a Champions League final, cancelled out Ronaldo’s opener.
Real’s victory was confirmed four minutes past the hour mark though when Ronaldo tucked in his second, a classical poacher’s goal just three minutes after Casemiro’s deflected effort, to put Zinedine Zidane’s men 3-1 up.
“In the second half, Real pushed the accelerator and we stayed static,” noted a despondent Massimiliano Allegri after the match as he tried to find reasons for his side’s inexplicable collapse.
As Ronaldo reeled off in celebration, Juve’s legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon sank to the ground, the Italian great probably realising there was no way back, resigned to the fact that he may not be able to add the only major trophy missing from his collection.
Most of the pre-match hype had been built on this being a duel between Buffon and Ronaldo for the Ballon d’Or. “Ronaldo and I can’t be put on the same pedestal,” Buffon had said on the eve of the match. So it proved. On the basis of his show in Cardiff, Ronaldo will certainly be retaining his Ballon d’Or crown. That will be his fifth overall, putting him on par with his longtime rival Lionel Messi of Barcelona.
To add to Juve’s misery, they ended the game with 10 men as substitute Juan Cuadrado was sent off six minutes from time before Marco Asensio scored Real’s final goal in injury time.
“It’s been a spectacular season for us,” Zidane said after winning a remarkable second Champions League title in just 18 months as Real coach, putting him at par with Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. Two weeks earlier, he guided Real to their first La Liga title since 2012. “Today is a historic day for us,” added Zidane.
Juve will also end their season with two titles — Serie A and the Coppa Italia — but it was the Champions League that they most wanted as they looked to secure a historic table and assert themselves as European heavyweights. This was their second final defeat in three years and they’ve now lost their last five finals in Europe’s premier club competition.
This one, though, will sting. More than the 3-1 loss to Barca in Berlin in 2015 because this time around, their was more expectation than hope.
There certainly was expectation when Mandzukic levelled for them in the 27th with a goal for the ages. Leonardo Bonucci’s raking cross field ball was met with a first-time volley by left back Alex Sandro and his cross found Gonzalo Higuain whose dinked pass was expertly controlled on the chest by Mandzukic before the tall Croat swiveled and connected with his right foot to put the ball beyond a despairing Keylor Navas.
Ronaldo had put Real ahead seven minutes earlier, getting on the end of a slick one-two with Dani Carvajal and slotting the ball between Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli and into the corner of Buffon’s net.
The first half though was largely dominated by Juve with former Real striker Higuain testing Navas twice. The Argentine has been accused of bottling up in big games and that tag remains especially with Juve’s latest final loss.
Real were a completely different side in the second half though and carved Juve’s famed defensive line through their one-touch passing and pressing. Their reward came in the 61st.
A pass by former Barca full-back Dani Alves, a three-time Champions League winner and the man Juve hoped would help them end their quest for European glory, failed to find its intended target and Real countered.
In a flash, they were on the other end of the pitch and after a shot was blocked the rebound fell to Casemiro, who moments earlier was asking Alves to get up after his Brazilian compatriot had gone down following his misplaced pass, let fly. His shot took a slight deflection of former Real midfielder Sami Khedira and flew past Buffon.
Buffon cut a distraught figure moments later when Ronaldo turned in Luka Modric’s cutback from the byline. He probably knew by this time that the Champions League had eluded him again even though Allegri was adamant later on that Juve could go one better next season, which would be the 39-year-old Buffon’s last before he hangs up his gloves.
“Football gives us a chance to come back,” he said. “Next season Buffon will be with us and we can try to have a more integrated team and be more competitive.”
Just as competitive as Real, maybe. They wanted to send out a statement of their supremacy and the final scoreline reflected that when Asensio converted from a cross from Marcelo.
Real’s celebrations could now begin in earnest. And leading them was their talisman, Ronaldo.
After leading Real to a historic feat, Ronaldo will now try to win a second successive title with Portugal when the Euro 2016 winners play in the FIFA Confederations Cup, which begins in Russia in two weeks’ time.
Victory in Russia would make it two international titles for Ronaldo to Messi’s none; burnishing the claim that he’s indeed the best player in the world.
“It’s been an amazing yet exhausting season but next up is the Confederations Cup,” the 32-year-old Ronaldo said. “I feel like a young boy.”
And with Ronaldo feeling young, Real can continue being the best team in the world for quite some time.
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2017