As Cristiano Ronaldo turns 33, quality is more important than quantity
Cristiano Ronaldo can enjoy his 33rd birthday on Monday by looking back on a productive 12 months and a full decade, during which he has been at the top of the game.
As the years pass more questions arise about just how long these returns can continue -- the next few weeks may decide where he is celebrating his big day this time next year -- but, despite recent frustration, Ronaldo did pretty well while he was 32.
Real Madrid won five trophies, including the Champions League, La Liga and the FIFA Club World Cup, while his individual awards included a fifth Ballon d'Or, as well as the FIFA Best Player and UEFA player of the year prizes.
Given that birthdays are usually time for reflection, Ronaldo may look back on turning 23 as a key moment in his career. Before Feb. 5, 2008, he had scored 100 goals for in 287 competitive games for Sporting Lisbon, Man United and Portugal.
In his 24th year, Ronaldo scored 30 goals in 56 games and won his first Champions League trophy. He also finished as top scorer in the competition for the first time and was named UEFA Club footballer of the year. Given all that, it was no surprise that a first career Ballon d'Or followed. The personal numbers kept increasing, especially after he joined Real Madrid for a world-record €94 million fee in 2009.
By his 27th birthday, Ronaldo had 213 goals in 471 games for club and country and the 12 months that followed were his peak in quantitative terms, as he scored the most goals - 67 -- and played the most games - 70 -- for club and country. Such a huge effort, however, brought just two trophies, though one of was a first Liga title.
At 28 Ronaldo played slightly fewer minutes but took his number of goals - 61 -- above total games - 58 -- for the first time. He collected just one big trophy -- his second Ballon d'Or -- after he helped his cause hugely with a superhuman effort in dragging Portugal to the World Cup.
29 saw Ronaldo again play slightly less, but raise his goals-per-game ratio to 58 in 53. The stats were even more impressive in the most important competitions: 37 goals in 27 Liga games, 13 in 12 in the Champions League. Meanwhile his trophy haul went into overdrive as he won eight different competitions and awards including another Champions League and a third Ballon d'Or. The best year of his career also saw his personal museum open on his home island of Madeira.
Recent years have seen Ronaldo hone his game, moving from the left wing to become a penalty-box predator. He has also accepted the advice of those around him and been rested from time to time; most recently when he was substituted during last Saturday's 2-2 Liga draw at Levante.
But as his total minutes on the pitch have fallen gradually, the trophy haul has kept up, most obviously when he won Euro 2016 with Portugal despite limping off early in the final. During the last year, at the age of 32, he has played 57 times and equaled his best-ever trophy haul of eight.
There has been focus on Ronaldo's conversion rate in La Liga, with just eight goals from 108 shots in 2017-18 but, overall, he has scored 52 times across all competitions over the last 12 months. Not bad at all, even if it does bring his goals-per-game ratio close to where it was when he was 25 and just settling at the Bernabeu.
It could be that Ronaldo has grown wiser as he has got older, focusing on performing at his best at the most important times. For example, 19 goals in 13 Champions League games at age 32 is another personal best, while -- only! -- 20 in 30 Liga outings perhaps suggests he finds it harder to lift himself week in, week out.
That theory though is set to be tested next week when Paris Saint-Germain visiting Madrid for the first leg of a Champions League round-of-16 tie on which his season, and that of his club, hinges. A contract stand-off with Madrid president Florentino Perez is still unresolved, so Ronaldo's performances against the French club might decide his future.
(That the Ligue 1 side's talisman Neymar was also born on Feb. 5, albeit seven years later, adds extra spice, especially as Perez has maintained his long-running interest in signing the Brazilian forward.)
Ronaldo often tells his critics to look at the stats and his bottom line numbers remain impressive. But the sheer quantity of goals has been declining over recent years and, as he turns 33, scoring in the biggest moments when trophies are on the line must be what counts above all else.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan