CARDIFF, Wales – Chants of “Cristiano! Cristiano!” rang out from the half of the National Stadium of Wales bleached with white Real Madrid shirts. The Juventus supporting half was eerily quiet and a select few were even breaking the no-smoking rules to calm the nerves. Cristiano Ronaldo had forced them to reach inside their pockets and fumble for lighters.
Ronaldo had just scored his 600th goal for club and country. And somehow, more importantly, he had scored his second of the night and effectively hammered the stake in the Italians’ hearts, putting Madrid up by two goals to all but guarantee Real would become the first team to retain its crown in the Champions League era with Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Juve. Overall, it was Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s third Champions League trophy in the past four years, which is also something that has never been accomplished in the modern era of the sport.
To ironic gasps of surprise, Ronaldo was named Man of the Match after the final whistle.
When the lights shone brightest, Ronaldo stepped forward and proved exactly why seemingly every step he takes these days ends up being cause for a celebration of history. Arguably, he is the best player of the current generation, and this latest Champions League title legitimized that argument more than ever before.
While Lionel Messi may have been at one point the clear choice for that distinction, the debate has been muddied far more in recent years primarily because Ronaldo has continually turned up on the biggest European stages time and again.
Ronaldo’s second goal against Juventus also marked his 12th in Europe this season to eclipse Messi as the 2016-17 competition’s top scorer. Remarkably, the Portuguese has finished with the most Champions League goals for five consecutive seasons. In clearly measurable ways, Ronaldo has dominated Europe for the past half-decade.
After scoring five goals in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich and following up with a hat trick to kill off Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the semifinals, Ronaldo wrapped up what seemed like a scripted European campaign. His two goals against Juventus didn’t seem to surprise anyone because this wasn’t a break from his character.
Ten goals from the quarterfinals through the final is the definition of clutch, and Ronaldo’s recent achievements in the grander scheme of his rivalry with Messi should not be overlooked. Considering the ridiculous conclusion he had to end the season, the question must be asked: Has Ronaldo finally surpassed Messi as the greatest player of their generation?
The answer is still unclear, as both players are still active. But as it stands, Ronaldo has accomplished enough over the last five years to pull even with his Barcelona rival.
— #UCLfinal (@ChampionsLeague) June 4, 2017
With Real Madrid winning La Liga and the Champions League this season – and Ronaldo’s prominent role in both trophies – he will now inevitably collect his fourth Ballon d’Or in the past five years and fifth overall. Yes, Messi and Ronaldo would be level in that category, and at age 32, Ronaldo has transformed into an even more lethal scorer in big games than early in his career.
Ronaldo has claimed the greater individual honors and also managed to win three of the past four Champions League titles for his club and the 2016 European Championships for his country. True, Messi reached three straight finals with Argentina from 2014 to 2016, but he failed to perform in those grandest of moments as the Albiceleste fell short on all three occasions. In sports, results in finals matter.
Barcelona’s 2014-15 season provided a bit of a magic with Luis Suarez and Neymar teaming up with Messi to complete a European treble. Messi deservedly won the Ballon d’Or, but that campaign proved to be the exception, not the rule, when analyzing the past half-decade.
From 2009 to 2012, Messi won the Ballon d’Or four straight years and was undoubtedly the best player on the planet and on a clear path to being unquestionably the greatest player of the current generation – possibly of all time. At the time, even Ronaldo’s most fervent fans would have had trouble making a reasonable argument in favor of their idol without sounding like they had entirely lost a grip on reality. But from 2013 to 2017, Ronaldo has topped Messi individually in all but one season – and he doesn’t seem to be losing his edge with age.
As Messi turns 30 this month, he will be forced to evolve due to age. The Argentine still remains effective with no clear signs of slowing down, but Father Time remains undefeated. Ronaldo’s ability to switch to a lethal, in-the-box finisher, rather than the streaking winger he was early in his career, is a transition that is more difficult to imagine for Messi, a smaller and more skilled player whose strengths suggest a move deeper into the midfield to take advantage of his passing, vision and ability to dictate pace of play. So the likelihood of Messi continuing to be the match-winning goal scorer late into his career appears to be more remote.
More often, Ronaldo is finding the ball at his feet with the goal within sight, and his fabled work ethic in training throughout his career has only sharpened his aim with age. Given how he performed in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, one finds little reason to doubt his ability to continue scoring important goals into the twilight of his playing career.
Ronaldo still may not decisively win the argument as the best player of the current generation. But Messi no longer decisively wins that argument, either. If anything, both soccer immortals stand as equals.
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