Has any footballer ever achieved more after their 30th birthday than Cristiano Ronaldo? Since that day four years ago he has won three Champions Leagues, one European Championship, two Ballons d’Or and one La Liga title. And he has remade himself as the greatest big-game decider in the history of the sport.
Ronaldo’s final years at Real Madrid were marked more than anything else by the way he would rise to the biggest occasions and win them almost single-handedly, in a way that out-stripped even Lionel Messi’s ability to do the same. Even if he played his most exciting football at Manchester United, or his most consistent football in his early Madrid era, his most effective football was in the second half of his time there. And he has the medals to prove it.
But there was a suspicion when Ronaldo left for Juventus that he did not have that same power any more. He did not shine in any of the 2016, 2017 or 2018 Champions League finals. He was, after all, moved on by Madrid this summer. And he only scored one in the group stage this season.
But last night in Turin felt like a return to the Ronaldo of the last few years. The decisiveness of his performance, his eighth Champions League hat-trick, destroying the best defence of the decade, overturning a first leg loss that looked permanent at the time. It was, at the age of 34, classic Ronaldo, a restoration for the ageing king of the Champions League.
RONALDO’S GREATEST RECENT CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MOMENTS
29 April 2014 It feels strange looking back four years on but Real Madrid had a desperate quest for their 10th Champions League title – la decima – and many backed Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich to knock them out in the 2014 semis. But Real won 1-0 at home and when the teams returned to the Allianz Arena, Guardiola made a fatal miscalculation, leaving his team too open. So Ronaldo destroyed them on the break, scoring twice in a 4-0 win to send Real through to the Lisbon final.
24 May 2014 It was not his best performance as Real Madrid struggled to break down a tenacious Atletico Madrid side who came within seconds of winning. But even then Ronaldo was there at the end, scoring the confirming fourth goal from the penalty spot, running away with his shirt off. By winning the European Cup in his homeland, and providing the defining image, he had made it his night.
12 April 2016 Back in the early months of the Zidane tenure, as he picked up the pieces from Rafa Benitez’s tenure, Real had to turn around a 2-0 last-16 deficit against Wolfsburg. But they need not have worried: Ronaldo tied the game with two goals in two minutes before piercing the wall with a late free-kick. Yet another rescue job, yet another hat-trick.
28 May 2016 Just as he had in 2014, Ronaldo ensured that he provided the defining moment of Real’s 2016 Champions League final win, putting away the decisive penalty at the end of the shootout in Milan after Juanfran had missed for Atletico. Ronaldo did not have the best game, bur no one remembers that now.
12 April 2017 Away at Bayern Munich in the 2017 quarters, Real were struggling and up against it, and only a missed penalty stopped them from going 2-0 down. But the game turned when Ronaldo received Carvajal’s cross, swivelled and volleyed the ball into the bottom corner, a masterful finish. He scored another that night and three more in the thrilling second leg to make sure.
2 May 2017 Hosting Atletico Madrid in the 2017 semis, Ronaldo headed Real into an early lead before thumping in a second to take the tie away from Atletico. Karim Benzema held off Diego Godin, and Filipe Luis’ follow-up clearance bounced up to Ronaldo, who perfectly positioned himself over the ball and drove it through Jan Oblak into the net, sending Real on their way to another final.
3 June 2017 Retaining the Champions League was meant to be impossible but Real Madrid did it in 2017 and Ronaldo, of course, was front and centre of the Cardiff final. He scored Real’s first and third goals and while they were not his best – or even the best of the game – he now had back to back winners medals, and not many can say that.
3 April 2018 Tuesday night was not even Ronaldo’s greatest ever Champions League moment in Turin. Last year in the quarter-finals he was there with Real Madrid and he scored twice, the second of which arguably his finest ever goal. Facing away from goal, just inside the box, his overhead kick plucked Dani Carvajal’s cross from high out of the rainy sky and struck it like a tennis smash into the bottom corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s net. Zinedine Zidane called it “one of the most beautiful goals in the history of the game.”