If you’re the kind of person who tends to watch Italian football via your Twitter timeline, you may be in awe of what appears to be just another mesmeric season from one of the greatest to ever do it.
However, the vintage moments – whether it be the Superman leap to nod home at Sampdoria, the thunderbastard at Genoa or the set-piece magic in the recent Derby della Mole – that gain miilons of views and thousands of retweets mean that Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2019/20 campaign is easily misinterpreted by the average Joe.
And when you see that he became the first Juventus player since Omar Sivori in 1960/61 to score at least 25 goals in a single Serie A campaign, it may be difficult to understand why.
But there’s no doubting his nonetheless stellar goal tally this term has papered over an underwhelming season by the Portuguese’s lofty but demising standards.
Sure, his goals may well secure Maurizio Sarri his first-ever league title in management and the Bianconeri’s ninth Scudetto on the bounce, but when you tune into your typical Juve fixture – they’ve all been pretty similar this season – one thing’s painstakingly obvious: this isn’t Ronaldo’s team, it’s Paulo Dybala’s.
La Joya’s 21 league goal contributions this term may be inferior to Ronaldo’s 31, but his impact on this Juve side is profound. He’s the heartbeat. The metronome. The key spoke in Sarri’s stop-start wheel.
The Argentine’s versatility has been laid bare this term, being utilised as part of a front two – often alongside Ronaldo – in an attacking midfield role or, more recently, as a false nine following Sarri’s switch back to his tried and trusty 4-3-3. Wherever he’s been utilised, though, Dybala’s excelled; his capacity to exploit space all over the pitch, receive possession in deeper areas, combine efficiently and outfox opponents with supreme balance and ball manipulation have been nothing short of spellbinding.
And while it’s the Argentine who’s so often responsible for kickstarting the short passing combinations which, I guess, is ‘Sarriball’, Ronaldo’s looked like a fish out of water when Juve attempt to build-up and break down the typically deep blocks they face.
In fairness, he wasn’t helped by Sarri’s use of a 4-3-1-2 (and an incompetent midfield) for much of the campaign which saw him shoehorned into the side as a striker. The lack of reliable width available in this system led to congested central areas and thus, less room for Ronaldo to manoeuvre.
And when the 35-year-old drifted out to the left flank for a wee bit of breathing room, Sarri’s use of favoured left-back Alex Sandro in an inverted role meant he was often isolated and tasked with beating two or more opponents when the ball arrived at his feet without the support of the overload.
This was a typical theme up until the break in March and although Ronaldo endured a goalless November, an imperious goalscoring run from December and February in which he scored in 11 consecutive Serie A games ensured his inability to beat a man, poor decision-making, lack of fluidity and dwindling physical attributes were all overlooked.
He was producing at a frightening rate, and that was enough for Juventini – as well as ‘@CR7GOAT’ on Twitter.
Nevertheless, recent signs suggest Ronaldo is set for a late-season resurgence ahead of a tricky domestic run-in and the finale of the Champions League next month, in which Juve will have to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit against Lyon in order to reach the last eight.
I’m not necessarily referring to the vintage strike from distance at Genoa and the rare bit of set-piece magic against Torino as signs of his return to form; but instead, it’s the backheeled assists for Gonzalo Higuain, the more efficient combination play and overall inclusion in Sarriball which have been refreshing to witness as a result of the Italian’s return to a 4-3-3 – and Ronaldo moving out to the left-wing with Dybala serving as the crafty false nine.
He’s been a particular beneficiary of the return to form of x-factor talent Douglas Costa on the opposite flank – who stretches out opposing defences with his capacity to hug the touchline – and La Joya’s ingenious movement which often draws the attention of centre-backs higher up the pitch, allowing Ronaldo to exploit the space in behind.
And all of this had come after a woeful start to calcio’s resumption from the former Real Madrid man. He’d dropped an absolute disasterclass in the Coppa Italia semi-final second leg against Milan – failing to add to his 10-goal haul from the spot this term as his penalty crashed off the inside of Gianluigi Donnarumma’s post – while his clutch gene went AWOL for the resulting final against Napoli, as the Bianconeri slumped to a penalty shootout defeat.
Between both of these ‘is Cristiano Ronaldo in decline?’-worthy showings, the 35-year-old was forced to stomach Lionel Messi’s mesmeric display in Barcelona’s first return fixture away at Mallorca, as the Argentine dazzled in a 4-1 victory with a goal and a pair of assists.
Messi would then spearhead a 2-0 victory over Leganes the day before Ronaldo’s cup final no-show and overall, it was a five-day period which perfectly encapsulated Messi’s overwhelming superiority over his longtime rival at this point in their respective careers – albeit against differing levels of opponent.
Nevertheless, despite a minor resurgence after a difficult start to the restart, there’s little doubting his 25 Serie A strikes has papered over a clearly demising footballing great.
But hey, with crunch time arriving in the race for the Scudetto and Juventus certainly being underdogs to bag their third Champions League title this August, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ronaldo further plaster over his decline by conjuring up a bit of timeless excellence once more.