In the 74th-minute of Juventus’ Coppa Italia final loss to Napoli, something almost without precedent happened.
With Juventus struggling to make a breakthrough against Gennaro Gattuso’s stubborn underdogs, Juan Cuadrado swung in a deep, right-footed cross which sat up perfectly for the greatest header of the ball football has ever seen.
What happened next, or what was meant to happen next, was pretty obvious. In a moment which felt like an eternity, Cristiano Ronaldo and every one of his sinews would meet the ball with the familiarity of an old friend at the back post, in one gravity-defying second shattering Napoli’s hopes and handing the Portuguese forward the 22nd cup final victory of his career.
It must have come as a bit of a shock to Ronaldo when the ball’s now-customary trajectory towards the bottom corner of the goal was rudely interrupted by Giovanni Di Lorenzo.
The ball bounced harmlessly off the Napoli right back’s neck, there was no goal, play went on, and at the end of the night another striker in Arkadiusz Milik took home the plaudits while Ronaldo took home a runner’s-up medal.
So far, so unusual. And after all if Ronaldo scored every zero G header that entered his orbit, Juventus could win the Champions League simply by signing Dwight McNeil and Kieran Trippier to provide an endless supply of looping diagonals from either flank.
But the reason I say almost unprecedented is because there was some very recent precedent for Ronaldo’s strange night in Rome.
Five days earlier, Juventus were playing against a ten-man AC Milan side in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi final, and the break was on. Douglas Costa did the obvious thing and teed up the most accomplished athlete in elite sport since Michael Jordan in the final third. All Ronaldo had to do was apply the signature burners to score his first goal since Italian football’s restrat.
We were, as in Rome, primed for the inevitable. Then Ronaldo.exe started buffering. One system failure later and a grateful Alessio Romagnoli cut out the pass before Ronaldo had a chance to touch the ball.
And he missed a penalty in the same match.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who is so unerringly confident from 12 yards that his detractors made an entire nickname to mock him for it, missed a penalty in a cup semi-final.
When glitches such as these start to stack up, do they become a feature instead of a bug? Might the goalscoring robot with a legitimate claim to GOAT status finally be shutting down?
The problem with any GOAT is that they have to be put out to pasture eventually, and Ronaldo is no different. What is up for debate is whether this exact point in his career is where it will begin to go downhill, or if like so many times before, Ronaldo.exe simply needs patching.
I think we can dismiss out of hand the idea that mitigation should be offered to Ronaldo because Juventus are struggling under Maurizio Sarri this season.
Here, we must unfortunately invoke the name of Lionel Messi, who has defied internal chaos at Barcelona to maintain his usual standards – it’s just insulting to a similarly epoch-defining player like Ronaldo to suggest that the club’s choice of manager would impact his output in the same way that it would for lesser mortals.
Indeed, at the risk of sounding like a tedious armchair pundit, you can talk about Sarri’s starting lineup and formation all you want, but that has nothing to do with Ronaldo failing to capitalise on chances which, by his standards, are considered bread and butter.
A more compelling argument for those hoping to write off the last two games as mere bad form is that, we have been here before.
23 December 2017: Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid have been humbled at the Bernabeu by Barcelona. and are 14 points away from the league leaders after the 3-0 defeat. An ineffectual Ronaldo is sitting on four goals in 11 La Liga matches, and, just like now, with every Real Madrid loss comes a Twitter compilation of his heavy touches and skewed shots which gleefully proclaims his downfall.
Do you need reminding how that one ended? With Ronaldo holding the Champions League trophy in Kiev, having scored hattricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in the knockout stages to lead its scoring charts with an obscene 12 goals.
In the autumn years of his career, Ronaldo has operated at a much lower intensity at the beginning of the season so that when January hits, he can begin gathering momentum at the opportune time to knock some poor souls out of the Champions League Round of 16.
You can see through how Zidane carefully managed Ronaldo’s minutes in 2017-18 before unleashing him on Europe’s best and brightest that it’s a pretty handy stratagem, and this same Kawhi Leonard-esque conditioning routine has no doubt been scuppered by the impact of COVID-19.
But… does this disprove the argument that Ronaldo is declining?
It was a testament to Ronaldo’s reduced physical capacity in the first place that load management plans were being drawn up for him, and arguably the tactical compromise which saw him accept a more conservative role both in the context of the squad and on the pitch, where he has been far less involved in general play in recent years, was much more foreboding for his longevity than a couple of ropey Coppa Italia performances.
The other point to make is that Ronaldo’s physical peak was, based on the early results, much more Ben Nevis than Annapurna this season.
Since January Ronaldo has indeed gone on a blistering tear, scoring 13 goals in all competitions, but 5 of these (or 38%, for percentage fans) have been penalties.
There was equally nothing optimal about his showing against Lyon, another disjointed game where it felt as if his body and divine footballing brain inhabited different planes.
We know how much Ronaldo loves second legs, and this article could age like milk if he vanquishes Lyon in the reverse fixture before a triumphant return to Lisbon in the Champions League ‘mini-tournament’ in August.
It’s also worth noticing that those laughing at Ronaldo conveniently leave some not insignificant material out of their Twitter montages, from the deft flick which won the infamous penalty against AC Milan to some lovely interplay with Paolo Dybala against Napoli. Indeed, Ronaldo may well have ended the night in Rome as the hero if Dybala and Danilo could’ve kept their nerve in the ensuing penalty shootout.
But if Ronaldo can’t roll back the years against Lyon, and if the Twitter edit kings are gifted with more montage-worthy material, then the signs will be impossible to ignore, and football’s next software update might just leave one of its most efficient machines on the scrap heap.