Cristiano Ronaldo comes full circle in Cardiff as Real make UCL history
CARDIFF -- Cristiano Ronaldo was a goofy teenager, a kid prone to too many tricks and dribbles, when he lifted the first trophy of his career as a Manchester United player in Cardiff in 2004. Thirteen years on, he left the Welsh capital with his superstar status embossed in gold after inspiring Real Madrid to their 12th European Cup: la dodecima.
Ronaldo was just 19 back in 2004 when his header in the 44th minute of the FA Cup Final against Millwall set United on course for a 3-0 victory at the Millennium Stadium. But he was still a bit-part player, overshadowed on that occasion by the likes of Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who scored twice that day.
Fast-forward to 2017, though, and Ronaldo does not do "bit-part" anymore. If the first trophy of his career saw him awkwardly looking around at his older teammates for tips on how to celebrate, he took centre stage in full glare of the spotlight after claiming the 20th winners' medal of his club career, leading Real Madrid to Champions League glory against Juventus at the same venue where his silverware collection began all those years ago.
Whenever Ronaldo plays these days, he seems to create more history for himself or his club. His two goals in Cardiff -- the Millennium Stadium is now the Principality Stadium -- saw him break the 600-goal barrier for club and country in just 855 combined career appearances for Sporting Lisbon, United, Real and Portugal. His contribution against Juventus earned him his fourth Champions League winners' medal and saw Real claim their third European Cup in four years.
Real became the first club in the Champions League era to successfully defend the trophy, crushing Italian champions Juve 4-1 in the Welsh capital. All that was missing was the hat trick Ronaldo was clearly craving after scoring his second goal of the game on 64 minutes.
No player has scored a European Cup final hat trick since AC Milan's Pierino Prati managed it in a 4-1 win against Ajax in Madrid in 1969, and when Ronaldo stepped up for a 35-yard free-kick in the 90th minute, the script appeared to have been written. But his shot hit the wall, in a rare moment of mercy for Juventus and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, so the 32-year-old will simply have to come back next year and do it in the 2018 Final in Kiev.
Such is Ronaldo's incredible ability to write the headlines that nobody would dare dismiss the prospect of him doing exactly that in the Ukrainian capital in 12 months' time. If there is a record to break or a milestone to achieve, Ronaldo steps up, and more often than not, he delivers. His two goals against Juventus secured his position as top scorer in the 2016-17 Champions League for the fifth successive season, with 12 goals in 13 games, but so many of those have been crucial -- the type described as "heavy goals" by those within the game due to their significance.
Ronaldo scored only twice in the group stages, but when it came to the knockout rounds, he showed up in peerless fashion. There were his five goals in the two-legged quarterfinal against Bayern Munich, with his second-leg hat trick at the Santiago Bernabeu taking Real through a pulsating clash against the German giants. Then came the semifinal against Atletico Madrid, when he scored another hat trick on home turf to give Real total command of the tie.
Ronaldo's record proves he is the ultimate big-game player. He rises to the occasion whenever the stakes are at their highest, and it was the same in Cardiff. And as ever, he wasn't shy about stating the importance of his contribution.
"I scored two goals and am the top scorer in the Champions League again," Ronaldo said after the game. "The objective is to win next season's Champions League. It is not easy, but nothing is impossible.
"The people who always criticise Cristiano are going to have put their guitar back in its case."
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL: REAL MADRID 4-1 JUVENTUS
- Report | Ronaldo hits 600th career goal | Bale's joy
- Marcotti: Real show their greatness | History made in Cardiff
- WATCH: Ronaldo's brace (U.S.) | UCL sights & sounds (U.S.)
- Play of the Day: Mandzukic's golazo | WATCH: Ronaldo heroic
- Ogden: Ronaldo comes full circle | Jones: Buffon's woe
- WATCH: Ramos' son fits in the cup | Real lift the trophy
- Buffon: It all went wrong | Ratings: Real Madrid
That last part intrigues as criticism of Ronaldo has become part of the pantomime and something in which he actively engages. It's difficult to imagine a player more deserving of the praise he receives, considering his dedication and commitment to his profession, but nonetheless, the anti-Ronaldo brigade will still be out in force after his latest stellar performance.
Maybe it just boils down to a football world split by a futile Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi debate, but once again, Ronaldo has the last laugh, as he walks away with a winners' medal. By winning a fourth, he now has as many in this competition as Messi, not that it matters. When you have won four European Cups, who's actually counting?
The only problem is that one day, we will have neither Messi nor Ronaldo to scrutinise for their football ability and we should just enjoy it while it lasts. Still, with Ronaldo in this form, don't expect him to fade away anytime soon.
It all started for Ronaldo in Cardiff. His return visit has proven that it's certainly not the end yet.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_