Why Ronaldo gives Juventus a real shot at winning the Champions League
It was a scene reminiscent of Muhammad Ali. An empty highway in the middle of the desert in the dead of night, the way ahead lit only by the headlights of Cristiano Ronaldo's entourage as he set off on a brisk run.
As old rivals for the Ballon d'Or attracted controversy in the Gulf for ordering a €1000 steak dress in gold leaf, a cut of meat that "Salt Bae" personally sliced, seasoned and fed to Franck Ribery, the five-time winner of that award was instead associating with The Greatest, apparently unable to resist the urge to get in another workout in the cool of the twilight. One supposes if you're going to celebrate goals like the one he volleyed in against Manchester United by pulling up your Juventus shirt and stroking your abs or performing a squat exercise as he did after tapping in a Miralem Pjanic free-kick against SPAL, then there are no days off -- not even on a winter break in Dubai.
Talk to people around the Juventus team and what has left the biggest impression on the pitch over Ronaldo's first six months in Turin is his Stakhanovite work ethic and relentless competitiveness. Usually it's the other way around. Gonzalo Higuain's memorable reaction to how hard Juventus worked was a one-word expletive beginning with "F." One of the explanations Antonio Cassano gave for turning down the Old Lady over the years was that he wanted to be a footballer, not a "little soldier." Discipline was never Cassano's forte, his love of donuts and pastries proving impossible to ignore. This is why club icon Alessandro Del Piero believed Juventus to be the "ideal environment" for a player with Ronaldo's mentality.
"Just by watching him the younger players have started to work like him and their level has increased by 20-30 percent," sporting director Fabio Paratici said. World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi was stunned to see him in the gym the morning after Juventus flew back from Manchester at the end of October. Everyone else was tired; not Ronaldo. "He told me he had to keep working," Matuidi said. "At 33! He's simply magnificent, an example."
"When everyone sees that the best in the world -- I'd say the best of all-time -- puts in this kind of work, arriving an hour before training and leaving an hour after it has finished, how can you work less?" Paratici continued. "Ronaldo represents a challenge to everyone." Whether it's the Tuesday free-kick contests with Miralem Pjanic and Paulo Dybala or games of head tennis, Ronaldo wants to win. He keeps the spoils -- "€200-300 and three bottles of wine" -- in his locker.
Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini says Ronaldo's willingness to take a new challenge in one of Europe's top five leagues spoke volumes to him.
"His winning mentality has filled the gap left by Gigi [Buffon]," he said. "... Our self-esteem has grown. Cristiano is the icing on the cake. He is giving us what [Andrea] Pirlo gave us in Italy in 2011. Cristiano is giving us that little bit extra in Europe." Rather than goals, per se -- Ronaldo scored only once in the group stage -- what Chiellini means by that is assurance.
Addressing Real Madrid's problems this season, Fabio Capello pointed to the psychological effect of losing Ronaldo. "He had everyone [on the opposing team] scared and made everyone [on his team] freer to do what they do."
The draw for the Champions League Round of 16 probably couldn't have gone any worse for Juventus, either. But when Atletico's name came out of the hat, the doubts that threatened to creep in were eased by the knowledge that Ronaldo has put 22 goals past them over the years, to say nothing of edging Diego Simeone's notoriously awkward side twice in the final, as well as scoring a hat-trick against them in the first leg of the 2017 semifinal.
Moments like that in the knockout rounds, not the group stages, are why Juventus are paying him more than what 10 Serie A teams pay their entire squads.
After taking more than five hours to score his first goals in a black and white shirt, Ronaldo ended the first half of the season as the league's top scorer and the most prolific Juventus debutante since John Charles in 1957. Involved in 47 percent (18 of 38) of their league goals, he was dubbed "Cristiano da Vinci" by Corriere della Sera after scoring a goal against Empoli that would perhaps have made the Mona Lisa smile. The same paper hailed him "Cristiano Saviour" after he came off the bench to rescue a point for 10-man Juve against Atalanta, a result that maintained his side's unbeaten and record-breaking first half of the season in Serie A.
While Mario Mandzukic has been the one to repeatedly make the difference in the big games, Ronaldo's influence definitely ended 2018 with a crescendo. One of the areas where that was felt, perhaps to the team's detriment, was on free-kicks. Ronaldo has stood over 13 of the 19 awarded to Juventus, failing to score any of them. It's a shame when you consider Pjanic has curled in 15 and Dybala another eight since 2011; it also makes you wonder if one of them, particularly the Bosnian, should pull rank before a tight two-legged affair against Atleti, the outcome of which might be decided by a set-piece. The strain of playing Dybala, Ronaldo and Mandzukic together up front also threatens to take a toll on an injury-hit midfield and partly explains why coach Massimiliano Allegri has substituted Pjanic more than any other player.
Whether Ronaldo can keep this up and compartmentalise the serious allegations he faces off the pitch remains to be seen. Police in Las Vegas have reopened a sexual assault investigation at the request of Kathryn Mayorga, who alleges she was raped by Ronaldo in 2009. A civil complaint alleges that Mayorga was coerced into signing a nondisclosure agreement in 2010 in an out-of-court settlement in exchange for $375,000. It asks for general damages, special damages, punitive damages and special relief, each in excess of $50,000. Ronaldo has dismissed the claims as "fake, fake news."
On the pitch, though, Ronaldo has seemed to get better as the understanding and chemistry with his new teammates improved. That said, the Portuguese is 33 and has started and finished 18 of Juventus 19 league games. In terms of usage, Ronaldo has already clocked up 71 percent of the minutes he played in La Liga last season. Is burnout a risk for someone who knows his body so well and hasn't played for his country since the World Cup in Russia? Back in the gym on his return from holiday, Ronaldo apparently doesn't fear so. He has praised Juve's "amazing organisation" and claims to be more convinced than ever that it "was 100 percent the best option" for the next chapter of his career.
"It's very different from Madrid. This is more a family," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. And Juventus are only too happy for him to be part of it.
The club has gone from a stepping stone to a destination. Stars now want to come and play alongside Ronaldo, as do the next big things like Trincao. Those who left in the recent past are tempted to return and players who considered leaving, like Alex Sandro, are instead signing new contracts. Stock in the club continues to rise. Season tickets sold out despite a price hike. Juve's Instagram followers have more than doubled and, in perhaps the biggest sign yet of the Ronaldo effect Adidas agreed to a re-negotiation of the club's shirt deal which will be worth €408m from next season to 2027. That's €51m a season, which may still be smaller than what Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern, Chelsea and Real Madrid make but is bigger (€36.5m) than Inter, Milan, Roma and Napoli's shirt deals combined.
Who knows what 2019 will bring.