The biggest game of the season, of course Cristiano Ronaldo would have made history in it. The first time in over a decade that he played 90 minutes of the Champions League and didn’t score a shot. It’s the first time in more than a decade that he’s finished a season without a club trophy. Yet more milestones for that historical biography.
It would take a remote perspective of history to confidently put Ronaldo in his rightful place among the group of footballing greats, but tonight felt most key aspects of his resume were set. Yes, the scale of goals will swell and there may be a few more matches when he rolls back the years, just as he did against Tottenham on Saturday. He should not be dismissed from his place as a footballing power here and now, but it is painfully clear now that his true greatness lies in the past.
Tonight, he did everything in his power to drag her into the present. Ronaldo wasn’t even United’s worst player. Especially in the beginning, he was playing hard and strong. One moment he might drift to the left to merge with Jadon Sancho, the next moment he’ll be on the right, freeing Anthony Ilanga to move into the penalty area. If Atletico Madrid were to close the penalty area, he would do everything in his power to get them out of there.
In that impressive opening third of the match, easily forgotten in the quagmire that followed, United and Ronaldo circulated freely, all with quick interaction and quick movements on the side. Then came the setback: a defensive line was played with ease, Harry Maguire ran into the no-man’s-land, while Diogo Dalot was trying to keep an eye on three players at once. Renan hit Lodi and with him went United’s sense of stability and any faith in the plan they applied themselves to in a relatively impressive fashion.
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This is not on Ronaldo. Nor was it completely unbearable that when their chips fell United did what they had done with Juventus before them in this type of game, they achieved and hoped for the overall trend of the greatest goalscorer in history recognized by FIFA. Surrounded by the right side line in the 66th minute, Bruno Fernandes, seemingly discouraging his compatriot in the colors of Manchester United and Portugal, desperately crossed into the penalty area hoping someone was there.
Alex Telles was pumping ball after ball in his general direction as well. As time went on, that seemed to be all this delightfully talented squad could think of: confidence in Ronaldo’s overwhelming narrative powers. He was saving them in the knockout stages as he did in the group stages, as he did with Juventus with this great kick against this team.
It does not work.
The main stat is the first European match without a shot in 3,969 days, since the draw with Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Ronaldo didn’t even come close. He didn’t even get a touch in the box. This in itself broke the streak of six and a half years in this competition to return to the group stage against Paris Saint-Germain.
Atletico Madrid played with him fearlessly, which is okay for a team that has struggled so much at their feet. After a shaky start, Yan Oblak was domineering under those desperate crosses. Jose Maria Jimenez won every duel. Maguire didn’t do a bad job holding Ronaldo back from free kicks either.
Diego Simeone and his players will surely never forget the many devastating blows Ronaldo has dealt them in this competition and beyond. But when the pre-match conversation revolved around the history between them, Atletico stayed here and now. Over the course of 180 minutes, they limited him to two guessed shots from outside the penalty area and one touch to the ball in it.
Atleti may be the best player to beat Ronaldo in this competition, but they may find themselves amused by the fact that they have ended his career in it. Almost every summer now brings uncertainty about 37 years and his future. The facts, however, are these. Manchester United are out of the Champions League and it will need a major change of course to return to in the second year of his contract. Arsenal have matches in hand, even after their weekend defeat, Spurs’ chances of jumping Arsenal are on par with the Red Devils.
Does Ronaldo like the Europa League? he has to. Thursday nights are great fun and slaps music. Is another team tempted to allow it to expand its records in this competition? Paris Saint-Germain may be the only club to be pictured with potential stories like Old Trafford, and there are few better than Lionel Messi and Ronaldo uniting at one last chance for glory.
But that’s the kind of area we live in now. It may have been the beginning of the end some time ago. For all we know, the end of Ronaldo and the Champions League just happened.
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