Cristiano Ronaldo wasn't the problem for Juventus, but the club spent big on the Portuguese star with an eye on winning the Champions League, and it failed in its first go of a four-year project.
Perhaps it’s not entirely fair. Perhaps it’s an indictment of the way the financial structure of the modern game means winning the Scudetto barely registers to Juventus anymore. But for Max Allegri’s side and for Cristiano Ronaldo, this season has been a failure.
Juventus will almost certainly win the Serie A title for an eighth successive season, and it would have wrapped it up last Saturday had it not been for an improbable defeat to SPAL, but that doesn’t matter. When the club spent $126 million to sign Cristiano Ronaldo last summer, and committed $135 million over four years in wages, it was for the sole purpose of winning the Champions League. Instead, for the second straight season, Juventus went out in the quarterfinals.
Ronaldo may feel he had done his job, scoring five goals in four knockout games, including a hat trick in the last 16 as Juve overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit to Atletico Madrid in Turin. He scored the opening goal in both games against Ajax. He remains, in his own world, a sensation, technically brilliant, explosive and as good an attacking header of the ball as perhaps there has ever been.
And yet that world is becoming smaller and smaller. He runs less and less. By the end in Turin, after Ajax had devastated Juve with a second-half performance that should have resulted in a margin far more comfortable than 2-1, Ronaldo looked old. He is 34 now, and, at times, it is beginning to show. He cannot drop deep anymore. He cannot seize a game that is drifting. All he can do is wait and hope somebody can create a chance for him. As Juve wilted in the face of the Ajax barrage, Ronaldo became increasingly isolated, his pleas to the referee every time Matthijs De Ligt beat him to a header increasingly plaintive, his frustration increasingly obvious.
Ronaldo has never been a diligent tracker. He has always been a player who focused on his own game and paid little attention to what the other team might be doing. That was at times problematic and is the reason why Sir Alex Ferguson first moved him off the wing at Manchester United: he preferred to deploy Wayne Rooney wide, because he could reply on him to track the opposing fullback. His prodigious goals return has meant that managers have, by and large, allowed him to do what he wants. Even now, it would be a stretch to say Ronaldo is detrimental to Juventus.
And yet there is a question. As wave after wave of Ajax attack broke on the Juve rearguard, it was impossible not to ask: where was everybody else? How was Ajax being allowed to run 30 or 40 yards with only the most cursory opposition?
This is one of the paradoxes of modern football. One the one hand, football at the highest level more and more seems to be driven by celebrity. Real Madrid won three Champions League titles in a row and four out of the last five by winning the moments. The slog of the league, the bore of consistency, isn’t really for its galacticos, which is why by the end of this season it will have won only two of the past 11 La Liga titles. Its European success was based on big players–Ronaldo, of course, but also Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos–winning the big moments.
On the other hand, though, the vast majority of teams now press, and that, as the likes of Roberto Firmino, Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero demonstrate, begins with the center forward. Ronaldo simply doesn’t do that–something that was covered to an extent at Madrid by the efforts of Karim Benzema. And that, in turn, unless the midfield sits very deep and compact, leads to the sort of unchecked surges that overwhelmed Juventus on Tuesday.
That compounded another problem, which is that physically, Juve didn’t look up to it. The warning signs were there against Tottenham last season when Juve was largely outmatched but score twice in a 10-minute burst in each leg. Ajax was simply stronger, quicker, fresher and more imaginative–as Atletico had been in the first leg of the last-16 tie. The game that stands out now as an aberration is the one Juve won, helped by Atleti’s weird timorousness in Turin.
Perhaps it’s simply the case that, relatively unchallenged domestically, Juve has forgotten what it is to fight–an extraordinary possibility given its history. Perhaps signing Ronaldo has prevented reinforcement elsewhere. Or perhaps it’s just that with Ronaldo, the team ethic and system Allegri had previously generated has been eroded.
Either way, the Ronaldo experiment, this season at least, has not worked.