Thursday 13 December 2018

From show pony to overhead kick superman: Cristiano Ronaldo's transformation in six key moments

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo

Charlie Eccleshare

Cristiano Ronaldo has swapped Real Madrid for Juventus in a deal worth €105m, here are the moments which saw him evolve from a show pony to one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.

1. Manchester United v Bolton, 2003: The show pony

As Cristiano Ronaldo stood on the sidelines waiting to replace Nicky Butt, the excitement around Old Trafford was palpable. Signed only three days earlier as a replacement for David Beckham, United's new No 7 sprinted onto the pitch to rapturous applause.

Only 18 - and with the acne and blond highlights to ram the adolescent point home - Ronaldo's first contribution was to give the ball away after being on the end of a crunching Nicky Hunt tackle.

Gradually he found his way into the game though and set about humiliating Hunt and his fellow defenders with a series of feints, dummies and step-overs.

There was some decent end product too - he won a penalty and helped create a goal - but all anyone came away talking about was Ronaldo's dazzlingly quick feet.

Not everyone was impressed however. Ruud van Nistelrooy was United's main striker at the time, and was utterly obsessed - consumed even - by scoring goals. Fancy flicks were irrelevant to him, he wanted as many crosses into the box as was humanly possible.

The rest of the season followed a similar pattern to his Bolton debut, with Ronaldo's tricks more noteworthy than any real end product (with the exception of a clinical FA Cup final goal). Six goals and four assists from 40 appearances was a pretty modest return for a player with such considerable talent.

A frustrated Van Nistelrooy offered some withering criticism a few days after the end of the season: "Cristiano is a really big talent. I see that every day in training. But in the game he's not effective.

"He is getting better - but there is too much show in his playing. He wants to play nice football but you can't always play that way.

"Often his crosses come too late for me because I'm marked by then."

2. Reading v Man Utd, 2006: The goalscoring winger

After a good but not great first three years at United, Ronaldo improved dramatically in the 2006-07 campaign, as he morphed from show pony to devastating finisher.

The first signs of the transformation came at the Madejski Stadium in an early-season game against newly-promoted Reading. United were trailing 1-0 and struggling to break down a massed defence who were being roared on by a boisterous Saturday night crowd on a warm September evening.

Ronaldo received the ball down the left close to the touchline about 40 yards out from goal. Three years earlier his eyes would have lit up at the chance to humiliate the opposition full-back - like poor Hunt - as if that was an end in itself.

But now Ronaldo's focus was different. He drove at Reading's right-back  Graeme Murty, took five purposeful touches to power his way into the box, cut inside the full-back and arrowed a shot into the far post beyond Marcus Hahnemann.

It was an unfussy, brutally effective goal and set the tone for a campaign in which Ronaldo registered 23 goals (having managed 27 in the three previous seasons combined) and won the PFA Player of the Year award. It was also the year when Ronaldo won his first Premier League title. He was realising that scoring goals in a winning team was even funner than playing role of most skillful kid in the playground

"When he came to Manchester United, he was a show pony," Rio Ferdinand said of Ronaldo's early years at Old Trafford. “He wanted to do skills, he wanted to show people how good he was and take people on, take the mickey out of full-backs.

"Then he realised it was about end product and to become the best player in the world it would be all about purely scoring goals, or setting goals up for others and having an impact on games. He forced himself to become that guy."

3. Roma v Man Utd, 2008: The centre-forward

Having gone from show pony to goalscoring winger, the next step was to take on a more central role in the evolving United team. But if he was to do that successfully, Ronaldo would have to shoulder a greater goalscoring burden.

At the end of the 2006-07 season, United's technical skills coach Rene Meulensteen exhorted Ronaldo to demand more from himself.

"Cristiano," Meulensteen said. "I’ve looked at your goals last season, and you only scored 23 because you want to score the perfect goal all the time. ‘Look at me! Top corner!’ The most important individuals are the ones who elevate the team, not themselves. You think it’s the other way round. No, no, no. Elevate the team and the team will then elevate you."

Meulensteen then asked Ronaldo how many he thought he could score in the following season. A confident Ronaldo estimated between 30 and 35. "I think you can score 40," replied Meulensteen.

In the end Meulensteen was a touch pessimistic, as Ronaldo ended the season with 42 goals from 49 matches (as well as another Premier League title and first ever Champions League).

Ever since their pep talk, Ronaldo became obsessed with scoring goals. He and Meulensteen studied videos of Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry, breaking down the science of goalscoring into three distinct areas: No.1: in front of goal, No.2: either side, No.3: outside the area.

Ronaldo eventually became a master of all three, and showcased his evolution into a "proper" centre-forward with a thuddingly good goal against Roma in the Champions League almost exactly 10 years ago.

Ronaldo came into the match in blistering form, having scored eight goals in his previous eight matches - primarily from a roaming inside forward position. Alex Ferguson though decided that for this match, which was a Champions League quarter-final first leg, Ronaldo would play as an orthodox centre forward.

It seemed like an odd move. Ferguson had two orthodox strikers available to him in Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, and Ronaldo had little to no experience of playing as a centre forward.

For the first 38 minutes of the game, the gambled looked to have backfired. Ronaldo meandered around the pitch like a lost boy and had barely had a touch when Paul Scholes dug out a cross from just inside the right-hand side of the penalty area.

At this moment though, Ronaldo came alive. Watching the goal on television, Ronaldo is not even in shot when Scholes makes the cross but he comes charging into the box and rises almost three feet off the ground to bullet a header into the bottom corner from just inside the penalty spot.

It was a goal of such ruthless simplicity, the fruit of hours spent studying the masters of the craft. Having been all fancy touches and no end product, Ronaldo was becoming someone who could do nothing for a half but still make the decisive contribution.  

"His header was absolutely fantastic, his spring and courage to go in front of the defender," Ferguson said after the game. "I think the defender thought he was going to get it. It was the spring [that did it]. It was a centre forward's header. It reminds me of myself."

Since then, Ronaldo has established himself as arguably the best header of the ball in Europe.

4. Barcelona v Real Madrid, 2012: The goal machine

By the time Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid in 2009, he had demonstrated that he could score all types of goals, and at a rate to match the best strikers in Europe.

But the move to Madrid heralded another step in the Ronaldo development - from regular goalscorer to freakish goal machine. Where Ronaldo's 42 goals in that 2007-08 season had been a bit of an outlier at United (alongside five other campaigns of six, nine, 12, 23, and 26), at Madrid that sort of return became the norm. In fact he has scored on average more than a goal a game since joining Real, and 50-plus in six of his eight completed seasons.

To get to that level, Ronaldo had to become a more conventional centre-forward - linking up the play less and playing more on the shoulder of the last defender.

He also had to abandon any notion of beauty in his game and focus solely on the most direct and efficient route to goal. "Cristiano Ronaldo subscribes to Euclid’s theory: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Not only that, you have to blast down that line at warp speed until you reach the goal," wrote Spanish thinker Manuel Vicent in El Pais during Ronaldo's early years in Madrid.

The high point of phase one of Ronaldo's conversion to a single-minded striker came at the Nou Camp six years ago. Real Madrid had been in Barcelona's shadow for the entirety of Ronaldo's three years in Spain, but now they had an opportunity to strike a dagger into their rival's hearts.

A win for Real would more or less secure Ronaldo his first La Liga title, and sure enough it was the now global brand CR7 who would score the winner.

The goal when it came was executed with the cold calculation of a rocket launch. Mesut Ozil, demonstrating his almost superhuman appreciation of geometry, weighted a through ball so perfectly that it dissected both Barca centre-backs and their goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

Ronaldo scampered into the space vacated by an out of position Javier Mascherano and quickly calculated that the quickest route to goal would only require two touches. The first to round Valdes, the second to flick the ball into the empty net. It was his 52nd club goal of 58 that season.

Ronaldo celebrated with an infuriatingly ostentatious "calm down" gesture to the Barca supporters. But by this point, he didn't care about being liked or how he scored his goals. "I'm only interested in my football and winning with Real Madrid," he said at the time.

5. Real Madrid vs PSG, 2018: The poacher

On February 5 of this year, Ronaldo turned 33 - and having recently endured a (for him) lean spell of three matches without a goal, there were suggestions that he was past his best.

Since his birthday, Ronaldo has delighted in making a mockery of such negativity - scoring in all nine of the games he has played since, claiming 19 goals in that time. In doing so, Ronaldo has confirmed that he is becoming no less effective with age, he is merely modifying his game.

The Ronaldo of 2018 is the culmination of his evolution over the last couple of years from run in-behind striker to penalty-box poacher.

If you watch a Real Madrid match now, there's every chance you'll go long spells without hearing Ronaldo's name mentioned. This is because he spends almost all of his time in the penalty box, sniffing around for half a chance to score.

Everything about Ronaldo's game now is geared around scoring. 

The wider world was introduced to this new version of Ronaldo in Real Madrid's Champions League last-16 first-leg against Paris Saint-Germain in February.

Ronaldo touched the ball just 30 times in the match, 10 of which were shots, meaning that a barely credible third of his touches were shots. He was anonymous for most of the game but scored twice - the first a penalty, the second a deflection off his knee that he knew nothing about. It was the sort of goal that Filippo Inzaghi used to score, heralding Ronaldo's transformation from skills merchant to goal-hanger.

“When he was at United, between 2006 and 2008, I still maintain that’s his best two football years as a football player, in terms of his contribution through the whole game,” Gary Neville said last year.

“Since he’s gone to Real Madrid he’s contributed enormously to everything they’ve done but he’s living more off moments rather than a contribution through a whole 90 minutes.”

6. Juventus vs Real Madrid, 2018: The greatest?

Having spent the previous two months debunking any notion that he was finished, Ronaldo chose an even bigger stage to remind the world why he is considered by many to be the greatest footballer of all time.

Certainly in Champions League terms no-one comes close to Ronaldo's 119 goals, a tally he reached on Tuesday night at Juventus with one of the greatest in the competition's history.

Instinctively anticipating where Dani Carvajal's ball into the box would land, Ronaldo took a couple of steps away from goal and caught the cross with a perfectly executed overhead kick. Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon didn't move; Ronaldo put his hand on heart and nodded as if to say "what else were you expecting?"

Ronaldo also opened the scoring with a now-typical predator's finish from close range in the first half. Ronaldo has scored 37 goals from 35 matches this season, and in total at Real those figures are 443 from 429.  

He has come a long way from - in Ferguson's words - "a wee show-off who was desperate to convince everyone how good he was". 

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