“Help me Cristiano, you’re my only hope.” In the days approaching the Champions League final, such will be the thinking of Mancunians, Evertonians, Chelsea fans and whoever else doesn’t want Liverpool to beat Real Madrid.
Should you be of those leanings, he’s not a bad person to have on your side. If Real are victorious in Kiev then Cristiano Ronaldo will have equalled Liverpool’s haul of five European Cups in just ten years. On an individual basis, that would place him alongside Alfredo di Stefano and Paolo Maldini and one behind Francisco Gento, a winner of the first five renewals from 1956 to 1960 alongside Di Stefano and a further winner in 1966.
It is all too possible to envisage the sight of Ronaldo surging beyond Dejan Lovren, or taking advantage of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s callowness before offering Loris Karius the eyes and slotting home. Liverpool fans may loathe him for his Manchester United leanings, the preening self-regard and a marketing machine which takes in “CR7” branded underpants being sold in airports across the world, but they will all recognise the great danger he will present.
Victory would also assert him as the dominant player of the post-1992 Champions League era. Until Ronaldo and Real completed the feat last year, it was considered nigh on impossible to win the trophy in consecutive seasons.
Arguments over the merits of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will probably rage on until some time in the 31st century but in terms of the highest-grade club competition in world football, Ronaldo has leapt past his great rival in recent years.
Should the Champions League be collected on May 26, then another Ballon d’Or will likely follow, making it 6-5 in the personal battle with Messi, their respective performances at the World Cup permitting; Messi may then have to win the World Cup to claim the award. Ronaldo has top-scored in this season’s flood of goals, at a rate of a strike every 72 minutes, and his overhead kick against Juventus was one for the ages. Messi meanwhile, was a meek part of the Barcelona who squandered a semi-final place in being blindsided at Roma.
In Champions League terms, the Portuguese is now 20 goals ahead of the Argentine in all-time goals scored (on 120) when they previously swapped the record between them on almost weekly basis. And while they currently have four winners’ medal each, Messi’s first, collected in 2006, was received after injury kept him out of Barcelona’s 2-1 victory over Arsenal in Paris.
Ronaldo played a full, decisive part in all four of his triumphs: the Nat Lofthouse-style header against Chelsea for Manchester United in 2008, the late penalty and shirtless muscle flex in Real’s late-coming destruction of Atletico in 2014, the decisive shoot-out penalty against the same opponents in 2017 and then two goals in Cardiff in 2017 against Juventus.
In each of those games, it could hardly be said that Ronaldo played well but he has reinvented the requirements of excellence by being so damned efficient. The tricksy winger in permanent motion of his Manchester United breakthrough has given way to a uncategorizable forward who deals only in memes, someone who only breaks into a canter when it serves to feed his greed for goals. Other than that, most of his energy is conserved, aside from the flailing of arms when team-mates don’t find him with their passes.
In that, he is endemic of a Real team that does just enough to win when it matters, as was in evidence over a two-legged semi-final against Bayern in which Ronaldo did not actually manage to score. Such was Bayern’s dominance of the second half in the Bernabeu that a clodhopping miss by Ronaldo looked likely to have cost a fourth final appearance in five seasons. As the defence grimly held on for dear life, the football icon was little but a highly agitated bystander.
The collection of just two Liga titles in nine years in Spain (in 2011-12 and 2016-17) reminds he has not always had the players around him to compete with the Messi-fuelled Barcelona machine. Real have been unable to match the consistency of their hated peers with imbalanced squads built by the “galactico” vision of club president Florentino Perez, rather than the philosophical doctrines of Johan Cruyff that underpin the Catalan club.
This season’s Liga title race was all but over as soon as Ronaldo got himself sent off by pushing a referee over during August’s Spanish Super Cup first leg at Barcelona, and then had to sit out the first month of this season.
With Real floundering, Barca streaked away from the start and are on course for an unbeaten season, though Sunday evening offers chance for Ronaldo to break that sequence in a Clasico battle in which pride rather than silverware are at stake. For both clubs and their megastars, that is usually enough to fire things up, though it is Kiev that can etch Ronaldo’s name yet deeper in history.