It’s honestly astonishing to remember that there was once a time when Ronaldo wasn’t considered a “big game” player. Even after his incredible header vs. Chelsea in Moscow, questions about his clutchness hung over his head for years. However, as each season passed and Ronaldo struck decisive blows against the likes of Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Roma, and Wolfsburg, this narrative began to dissipate and isolate itself to the dark corners of twitter and internet forums.
Today, it’s a widely accepted fact that Ronaldo often shines brighter than the occasion itself. With three Champions League medals, a Euro Cup trophy, and four league titles across two competitions, he has nothing left to prove to anyone. With a record like that and with all his critics answered, he could be forgiven for closing up shop and calling it a day. But this is Cristiano Ronaldo we’re talking about.
In Real’s recent 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid, Ronaldo could be seen sprinting all over the place in the dying embers of the game, anxiously searching for a fourth goal. Some might perceive this as selfishness while some might perceive this behavior to be an “elite mentality,” but what’s clear is that this desire and hunger for more is allowing him to continue to impact the game even while he declines.
As a result, even after all he’s accomplished and all the goals he’s scored, he continues to surprise us and top, yes, top some of the things he has achieved in the past. Take for example his big game impact this season. It’s already been established that Cristiano is clutch, but he’s arguably been even sharper in the crucial moments than ever before, especially in the Champions League.
The event that seemed to kick off this critical spell, was a brilliant Ronaldo performance vs. Napoli, that torched the opposition’s defense and left Koulibably shivering on the ground in cold sweats.
Next, he turned his much-needed attention to La Liga, keeping Real Madrid ahead of the pack with a series of clutch goals. Four days after a superb, but eventually futile header against Valencia on matchday 23, Ronaldo converted from the spot to score a 2nd equalizer vs. Villarreal, before managing two huge goals in the dying embers of the game to salvage a critical draw vs. Las Palmas.
Even when he wasn’t scoring he was still providing an impact, as demonstrated by his duo of assists vs. Athletic Bilbao; the first of which was excellent.
But what makes all of this more impressive, is that Ronaldo was accomplishing these feats at a time when Real Madrid were struggling. Despite their solid caché of victories, Los Blancos were playing poorly and were having to claw their way to each and every result.
Consequently, fans waited in trepidation as the Champions League tie with Bayern Munich approached. But they needn’t have worried, for what Ronaldo had done prior to this point turned out to be nothing compared to what he was about to do.
Facing arguably the best side in Europe (at least at the time) in the Quarterfinals of the Champions League, Ronaldo demolished La Bestia Negra with 5 goals in 2 games. As is typical of the All Whites, Real Madrid conceded first in both legs, forcing Ronaldo to equalize both times, before bringing his team’s head above water and past their opponent. Even discounting his two offside strikes, it was a Herculean display; especially in the 1st leg, where he not only scored a brace, but defended like his life depended on it.
So ok, Ronaldo scored a hat-trick vs. an opponent in the Champions League Quarterfinals. That’s not unheard of [see Ronaldo vs. Wolfsburg, 2015/16]. So how about a 2nd hat-trick in back-to-back Champions League games and against the best defense in Europe [see Ronaldo vs. Atlético Madrid, 2 May 2017]? That’s definitely been done before... right? Nope.
And that’s the crazy thing. Ronaldo has been revving up to this moment all season and now that he’s finally unleashed his inner Hulk, we’re still seeing him do things that have never been done before.
This wasn’t supposed to be possible.
Not that anyone thought Ronaldo was just going to devolve into a useless lump of a player, but his inarguable decline was expected to have an impact on his ability to affect games this late into an arduous season. In fact, even at his peak, we’ve seen Ronaldo fall off to varying degrees at around this stage, as his 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons will attest to.
So what’s the difference?
Not to take any credit away from the man himself, but Zinedine Zidane deserves a good portion of the praise. With both the player and the manager recognizing that Cristiano is not as young as he used to be, Zidane has made the Portuguese superstar sit out several La Liga matches against the so called “lesser lights.” Out of a possible thirty-four league fixtures, Ronaldo has played only twenty-six games (three of which he has been subbed off in), with only two of those non-appearances coming due to injury. That means that Zidane has rested Cristiano six times, an unthinkable number for a man as hungry for minutes as Ronaldo.
And the results have shown. With plenty of time on the bench, Ronaldo has managed to conserve energy and explode when he is needed most. That’s why you’ve seen him suddenly manage 5 take-ons vs. Napoli, defend like a hound vs. Bayern, and complete a thoroughly all-round performance vs. Atlético, when it’s thought that he would never be able to pull off those kinds of displays again.
Thus, both Zidane and Ronaldo deserve immense plaudits for working out a scheme that is currently torpedoing Real Madrid to a potential La Liga and Champions League double.