Cristiano Ronaldo seals UCL for Real Madrid despite not being at his best
MILAN, Italy -- There was a sense of inevitability about the 2016 Champions League final's last, decisive moment, partly because of the irony that nothing in Cristiano Ronaldo's performance suggested he was going to do anything so definitive. Yet on a night of so many big questions, the Portuguese provided the only possible response by scoring the winning penalty for Real Madrid to beat Atletico Madrid after a shoot-out.
He also offered the image of the night, again ripping his shirt off to show that famously ripped body at the moment of victory, but he had more than just an image in mind.
"I had a vision," Ronaldo said after the game. "I knew that I would score the winning goal. I told Zizou [Zinedine Zidane] that and to let me take the fifth and that's how it turned out."
There is a strong argument that letting him take that penalty, the lowest-pressure spot kick of the lot given after Juanfran struck the post, was the only way it was going to turn out like that: Ronaldo being the one to win the game. He had barely contributed in a positive sense before then and one miss on 78 minutes almost lost Real the game; he self-indulgently tried a stepover rather than just finishing and Atletico then equalised just 52 seconds later.
That passage of play could have been a juncture moment, a real low point woven into the glittering tapestry of his career but instead, it's now just another detail in the story of another medal.
Just like the way Real had a relatively forgiving run to the final, few will remember any of that when they look on the bald facts of the game in the future. No one will remember that Ronaldo just didn't look fit or on form, even if that was so conspicuous that Zidane was still asked about it after the game. It was just no longer the biggest or most pressing question. Before the shoot-out, though, it was one of the biggest puzzles in the game.
How had Ronaldo stayed on? How had he even started given how he looked? Did Zidane not have the courage to take off the team's biggest player on the biggest stage, given all the debate and criticism that would entail?
For his part, Zidane answered the question, insisting Ronaldo was fit.
"No, he was not injured," Zidane said. "In the end, he was there, the last player, he gave us the win. He was not injured, he fought. He kept running."
The point, though, was that Ronaldo was fighting and running with so much less power and assurance than he usually does, often sluggishly trailing behind Real's counter-attacks. He had to stretch his muscles on more than one occasion and ran with what seemed a limp on another. That at least made him noticeable again. In the first half in particular, you could have been forgiven for forgetting he was on the pitch. Ronaldo was barely involved, having just 20 touches in the opening 45 minutes.
When he did finally get on the ball more in the second half, it was barely worth the effort. He was so peripheral, in fact, that it almost seems reasonable to argue that Karim Benzema just forgot he was there, deciding to shoot in the 70th minute rather than take what seemed the more sensible option of squaring it for his teammate.
Five minutes into extra time, the forward was presented with the kind of header from a corner that he would usually power home with ease, only to meekly head the ball into the hands of Jan Oblak. Again, it was impossible not to think that a fully fit Ronaldo would have hammered it home with barely a thought, other than how great he was. Here, he looked a long way short of great, and the Atletico players seemed to sense it too.
Just 60 seconds after that miss, Ronaldo got the ball on the left wing and seemed set up for the type of surge that would leave defenders in his wake. This time, though, his markers just showed no respect for his reputation and he was easily dispossessed.
He did get some revenge on Juanfran later on with a trick to embarrass the defender, and that was almost to foreshadow what was the game. The full-back missed Atletico's fifth penalty, setting up Ronaldo for his moment of glory and, in a way, redemption.
It felt like a rather cheap redemption, something gifted to him rather than one he earned. Then again, that's the funny thing about football and the entire point of redemption. It would also be wrong to say that his season didn't earn him this medal. Real only made it to this final because of his hat trick against Wolfsburg in the quarterfinals. He dragged them through that comeback even if he did drag his feet here. If any Real Madrid player deserved to hit an easy penalty, it was him.
That fact also adds even more value to his Real career. It was always the odd, and somewhat unfair, part of his time at the Bernabeu. Ronaldo scored so many goals, but the team's problems meant he didn't actually win that many major trophies, collecting just one league title, one Champions League and two domestic cups. A second Champions League in that time looks so much better, giving it a historic sheen and him a personal total of three.
Ronaldo has now played in four Champions League finals but performed really well in only one of them. Yet, he still does what he almost always does: hit the net. It was inevitable.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.