Cristiano Ronaldo was bought by the Bianconeri in 2018 as a statement of intent. Believed to be the final piece in their jigsaw, the Portuguese superstar was tipped for (almost inevitable) Champions League triumph. Three years since that, Juve have not made it past the quarters, and have rather regressed in terms of overall performances. So, is it all Cristiano’s fault?
In the past decade, Juventus made it into the final of the UEFA Champions League twice (2014-15 and 2016-17). Since the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo – the man brought in to take the Old Lady to the Holy Grail – they have not even made it past the quarters.
When Juve bought Cristiano in 2018, they paid more for the then 33-year-old (€100m) than Real Madrid did when they took him from Manchester United back in 2009 (€94m); the images of the Portuguese scoring that overhead kick against them in the first leg of their quarter-final meeting from the season before and scoring a very, very late penalty to deny them a historic remontada in the second leg etched deeply in their minds. Cristiano was the obvious getter of all the spotlight Real gathered in their back-to-back-to-back Champions League triumphs, and Juve believed he was all they were missing to bring the glorious European cup back to Turin.
That, however, is where they slipped up.
THE PARALLELS BETWEEN JUVE AND REAL
At Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo was at the absolute peak of his powers, having converted himself from a tricky right winger to a goal machine who’d drift in from the left. He had the belief and ability to be the protagonist on the European stage, using a platform that was solidified with a base of prominent cornerstones across the squad – the likes of Sergio Ramos in defense, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić in midfield, with Karin Benzema supporting up front, all of whom are now getting more attention as they’ve come into their own, their manager still dependent on them despite their advancing years. In Zinedine Zidane, he had a manager who, by the virtue of his own career, knew how to work with superstar egotistical personalities. While he didn’t always finish the job himself, Ronaldo always did more of his fair share throughout a campaign to ensure people remembered who was at the center of it all.
Juventus, on the other hand, while being a very strong team in their own regard, didn’t quite have the same formula as Real did. Winning the Serie A consecutively since 2011 is no fluke, and Juve’s constant-yet-healthy squad building was a testament to that. That, though, went out of the window when they decided to put all of their eggs in one basket and go for Cristiano in an all-out move, to win their first Champions League since 1996.
Keep in mind that although commendable, this Juve side was getting more and more comfortable at the top of Serie A, getting more and more susceptible to a drop-off with each passing season. All good runs, eventually and inevitably, come to an end, but all Juve could do was be ready to prepare for a proper rebuild, and the 2018 squad was just on the brink of showing signs of needing that. Of course, the chances of that happening deteriorated after the club invested so heavily in Cristiano and were then hit by an unprecedented global pandemic.
SO, IS IT ALL REALLY THAT BAD AT JUVENTUS, AND IS IT ALL CRISTIANO RONALDO’S FAULT?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is a lot more layered.
When you compare the starting XI of the Juventus side that got knocked out by Porto last week to the one that suffered the same fate in Madrid three seasons ago, Brazilian left-back Alex Sandro is the only one that started in both games. While the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Lenardo Bonucci, Gigi Buffon and Juan Cuadrado are still there, not only they are not the same players, the rest of the squad has also regressed. There are exciting young talents in that side, but the squad as an overall cannot presently provide the same formidable foundation to Ronaldo with which he thrived at Real.
When you look at the business side of things, despite the investment, Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival in Italy has been beneficial to both Juventus and Serie A. The league continues to reach higher viewership numbers, and the club continues to gain more online following. Across the many social media platforms, Cristiano is the most-followed footballer on the earth, and with social media interactions becoming the new formidable currency of global outreach Juventus have been able to find new fanbases and make global brand and sponsorship deals that were previously unimaginable. The brand of Juventus has undoubtedly reached new heights.
On the pitch, Ronaldo continues to churn out unreal numbers. In his 122 appearances for the Old Lady so far, he has scored 95 goals and made 22 assists. He has been Juve’s leading goalscorer for the past two seasons (28 in 2018-19 and 37 in 2019-20) and continues to lead the charts in the current one with 30; not bad for a player who just celebrated his 36th birthday. He might not be the same player, but Ronaldo continues to be one of the most formidable forwards in world football, setting up newer, higher standards for what ageing footballers can achieve. With him leading the side, Juve have won the scudetto for the past two seasons along with two Supercoppe Italiane.
Of course, Juventus did not buy Cristiano Ronaldo for the domestic titles, so every year they didn’t win the Champions League would be a year effectively classified as ‘failure’.
Ronaldo’s performances against Porto over two legs were, undoubtedly, average. Apart from an assist made to Federico Chiesa in the second leg, the Portuguese made very little contribution (apart from that free kick incident), so much so that many corners of Italian media were calling themselves “betrayed” by Ronaldo’s game. But calling him solely responsible for Juve’s fallacies in the UCL since his arrival is at the very least, an oversimplification. After all, in the past two campaigns, he scored all of Juve’s goals in their UCL knockout matches, including a hattrick that completed his side’s comeback against Atlético de Madrid in their 2018-19 season’s Round of 16 tie. The narrative at the time, was that it was Juve letting Cristiano down, not the other way round.
Cristiano dishing out a somewhat inert performance in a Champions League knockout match may be rare, but not new or unheard of. Even in his Real days that would happen, but the team would triumph nevertheless, something that hasn’t happened at Juventus (yet). When you buy a player specifically for one (and only one) trophy, not winning said trophy would unsurprisingly bring you the criticism Juventus and Ronaldo are getting right now. Harsh, perhaps, but not unexpected.
Despite his surreal numbers in front of goal, Ronaldo’s off-the-ball movement also makes things challenging for his teammates. Like any other athlete with an advancing age, the Portuguese has had to adapt his game, becoming an out-and-out number 9 who conserves his energy by limiting the number and extent of his sprints. While he still retains a lot of his pace that allows him to move quickly into position to strike, he understandably doesn’t run as much as he used to, something his legacy counterpart Leo Messi – who is reaching 34 years of age himself – has also had to employ to sustain his game. That means he offers little to no pressing against the opposition’s play, even considering the fact that his mere presence is often good enough to drag multiple players from the other team along with him.
Because Juventus don’t (yet) have a Champions League trophy to justify Ronaldo’s acquisition, his wages are also increasingly becoming a problem. The 36-year-old earns €31m every year, which is not only quite exorbitant in terms of Serie A, but even within Juventus that’s nearly four times the wage of their second highest paid player, Matthijs de Ligt, who earns €8m annually. That kind of imbalance in the wage structure never really helps clubs in the long run, meaning Juve are increasingly running out of options to keep him, and so will other clubs if Ronaldo continues to demand a wage of similar proportions.
SO, WHAT HAPPENS TO RONALDO NOW?
Unsurprisingly, the rumour mill has been enjoying itself over the past week. Various resources from multiple corners are implying all sorts of information. Some say Cristiano is unhappy with Juve and wants away, some say the other way round. Some are even suggesting a spectacular return to one of Ronaldo’s previous sides – Manchester United or Real Madrid, while others affirm that Juve insist to continue with the CR7 project for yet another year. Either way, Juventus have a decision to make at the end of this season. It might just come down to choosing between him and Paulo Dybala, who has his contract expiring at the same time as Ronaldo’s (summer of 2022) and despite being almost a decade younger than the Portuguese has suffered with injuries over the past couple of seasons, with constant speculation of Juve wanting to part with the Argentine.
If Juve were to let go of Cristiano next season, one could assume they’d take around €25m to agree to a deal. That is, if there is a competition to get his services, because despite his many obvious advantages, Ronaldo’s profile does raise many apprehensive questions, none graver than his €31m annual wage bill, something because of which Juve might even consider letting him go for free. Getting Ronaldo isn’t exactly planning for future at this point in his career, and given the negative financial repercussions of the COVID pandemic that all organisations are suffering from, one could hardly be blamed for being cautious.
While you could commend Cristiano Ronaldo for taking a new challenge at this point in his career, it is understandable the criticism he is facing, albeit the circumstances not entirely being his fault. Football narratives are always woven by the threads bestowed upon us by its constituent components, and with a personality like Cristiano, there will always be a strong narrative, no matter what happens.
Recency bias will dictate this phase in his life to be underwhelming, but unless Cristiano ends up staying in Turin and eventually win the Champions League, his Juventus chapter will only be remembered as a slight blemish on his otherwise legendary career.