All the defenders in the world wouldn’t have stopped Cristiano Ronaldo from scoring a hat-trick against Atletico Madrid in Turin on Tuesday
Deep in the bowels of the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night – after Manchester City had beaten Schalke 7-0 in their Champions League last-16 second-leg tie – the focus was not totally on what had just transpired on the pitch outside.
City’s win – following a 3-2 victory in the first leg in Gelsenkirchen – was exactly what you’d expect when the best team in England went against the 14th best in the Bundesliga. There were no limits to the depths Schalke plumbed on the night.
Their raucous away support – who earned the respect of their City counterparts with their enthusiastic support in the city centre earlier in the day – fell silent somewhere during the second half.
They stopped singing, stopped dancing and – as they sobered up in the piercing Manchester cold – endured rather than enjoyed what was left of their Champions League campaign.
Schalke’s players – led by captain and goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann – approached the away end at the conclusion. There they stood – silent and still – while the travelling party unloaded their abuse.
When the players had finished taking their excoriation, they turned and slumped towards the dressing room. The whistles of their disgusted supporters carried them across the pitch and mercifully out of sight.
Man City are an automated team with Pep Guardiola the one man left employed in the factory; he’s in charge of switching the machines on.
They play like this most weeks now, with 61 goals scored in 19 matches in 2019. The difference between a 7-0 against Schalke and a narrower victory against another team is usually the other goalkeeper playing better.
The game on Tuesday became so ridiculously easy that City players could be forgiven for letting their minds wander. “How is the other game going?” they might have pondered. “I wonder if Liverpool and Barcelona might go through tomorrow?”
Ederson, in particular, might even have got away with watching the Juventus – Atletico Madrid on a smartphone. While his team-mates were taking care of Schalke – with no reason to be fearful – he might well have seen what City should truly dread.
Because by the time the players had got changed and were making their way out of the stadium, the focus had already shifted from the paltry efforts of a team like Schalke – who really didn’t belong in the ring with opposition of this class – and a player who will scare the living daylights out of any team he faces in the next round.
“How would you like to face Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarter-finals?” Bernardo Silva was asked by the assembled media. “I wouldn’t like it very much, to be honest,” he said. “I know him, I know what he’s capable of and once again tonight he proved it.”
It took the City players quite a while to emerge from the dressing room after the game. One thing is for sure, however, and that is that every one of them caught up on the mercilessness that Ronaldo had again shown to Atletico in Turin.
“When you are playing in a competition like the Champions League you have to know that you can get drawn against these kinds of teams, these kind of players,” Silva said.
“It is a good thing. It means you are playing the best competitions, the best games and we will see who we are playing against. Of course, to play against Cristiano and Messi, it is always complicated.”
“Complicated” is one way of putting it. What’s that they say about best-laid plans?
Presumably, Atletico Madrid had one for Ronaldo in the second leg and it totally malfunctioned. As such, they were eliminated in one of the best turnovers the Champions League has ever seen. And that is part of the trouble coming down the line for clubs like City and coaches like Guardiola.
Where Pep excels in assembling systems, Ronaldo excels in dismantling them.
“Cristiano Ronaldo…” Pep Guardiola said on Tuesday. Even after a 7-0 win when Raheem Sterling danced around opponents and Sergio Aguero knocked in two goals, the City manager could not get his mind off Ronaldo.
“He went there to win the Champions League with Juventus. They achieved [the final] two times [but] they lost. They bring Cristiano to go there.
“They put all the pressure on his shoulders and he scores three goals against Atletico Madrid and go through to the quarter-finals. That is the type of guy and type of teams we have to face to achieve the next stages.”
Guardiola has not had to plan for anyone like Ronaldo since arriving at City. But that day of reckoning – logically – is looming closer.
City look strong collectively and it would make sense that if they are to win the final, then they will have to come across Ronaldo and Juventus somewhere along the way. But Ronaldo is not the type of guy that can be reckoned with easily.
Sure, Atletico did it in the first leg. They frustrated him, playing on the front foot and restricting his supply. To do it over two legs was a task beyond the capabilities of even the best defensive team in Europe’s top bracket. That’s because Ronaldo not only creates chaos, he revels in it.
Against teams that sit in, his movement is too good to be denied. He will find space for a header or a shot inside the box – left or right – so long as the service comes. Against teams that take possession and try to match up, it is Ronaldo’s speed and power on the break that create chances and decide outcomes.
And that is the one part of the game that Pep is yet to master. At least once a game – even against teams like Schalke – City’s passing moves are prone to breaking down.
Losing the ball with few defensive players holding the fort is one thing when you’re facing Guido Burgstaller. It’s another thing altogether when it’s Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s why Juventus bought him and as a collective they can play both ways; comfortable in possession and out.
A fee of €112m (£96m/$127m( for a 33-year-old might raise eyebrows in some quarters but it’ll be cheap if they carry off the Champions League trophy in June.
Ronaldo was the player who knocked Juve out of the competition last season. Like the Atletico tie which Ronaldo decided with his hat-trick, it was one of those knife-edge gamed which wouldn’t be decided until the very last knockings.
Ronaldo has a knack of inserting himself right at the very centre of these dramas. He has a unique personality, a sense of destiny, self-belief in unquantifiable reserves.
Some players might refrain from scrawling a message on their undershirt because they are worried they won’t score. Ronaldo, on the other hand, went out against Atletico in the knowledge he was going to score a hat-trick.
“That’s why Juve signed me,” was his analysis to Sky Italia in the aftermath. There is no reasoning against that kind of conviction.
Juventus did most things right over two legs against Real Madrid last year. But when push came to shove, it was a force of personality and not a grand plan that dislodged them.
Juve have got that now and with it the sense of invincibility that Ronaldo brings with him in the Champions League.
Barcelona have Messi, City are the best team… but when push comes to shove, Ronaldo knows he’s the king of this competition.
And that’s why Guardiola will know no matter what players or what formation he chooses, there is simply no planning for Ronaldo’s sense of occasion.