MUNICH — If you absolutely insisted on being contrarian and wanted to diminish the feats of Cristiano Ronaldo, then you might say that, on the basis he has played more Champions League games than all but three other outfield players and has featured up front for two of the most powerful clubs in the world, he should be the competition’s leading scorer.
But then you realise that Ronaldo didn’t find the net in the competition until his 30th game, and the desire to be provocative will probably diminish. There’s no point in trying to belittle the feats of Ronaldo, particularly after watching him beat Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo scored his 99th and 100th goals in European competition on Wednesday night as the decisive player in Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Bayern. If you’re keeping track, that’s 97 goals in 136 Champions League matches for Ronaldo. Take a minute to swill those numbers around in your head.
And yet remarkably, this is a man who is undoubtedly declining. His physical gifts are not as they once were. He has scored, by his standards, a relatively paltry 19 goals in the league this season. These were Ronaldo’s first goals in the Champions League in 197 days, the first time he found the net in Europe since scoring against Borussia Dortmund in the group stages back in September.
Ronaldo is 32; of course he’s declining. But the key is that he is declining from such a remarkable height in the first place that he’s only just approaching the level of about 99 percent of the other professional footballers in the world. A diminished Ronaldo is still better than almost everyone else. Ronaldo’s decline is a bit like taking a few handfuls off a 10-foot-tall pile of cash. There’s still lots and lots of money there.
Against Bayern, Ronaldo was fairly anonymous in the first half. He flapped his arms and pouted, as he often does, frustrated that his contribution didn’t extend to much more than a snap shot a short while before half-time. He drifted in from the left but didn’t receive the service he needed, and when he did, he couldn’t make the most of it.
But after the break, he was decisive. That’s what Ronaldo is these days. He doesn’t have the pace or power anymore to rip through defences like he once could. He doesn’t impose his will on matches as much. But he still has the ability to turn games his way.
Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are obviously very different players, but they share certain common traits, one of which is a titanic self-regard — something that is perhaps required in order to continually reach the heights they both do. Another is a near-insatiable appetite for victory and glory. But another still is now their age and how they’re adapting to it.
“The older you are,” said Ibrahimovic recently, “the more experienced, the more intelligent, and you don’t waste energy on things you don’t need.”
Ronaldo seems to have adopted a similar credo. He no longer tries to burst past opponents in a flurry of skill and raw power every time he gets the ball. His brain occasionally thinks his feet are still as fast as they were a few years ago. But then it remembers and shifts into the sort of mentality that an ageing giant needs to not become a fading one. He is prolonging his greatness.
Ronaldo is a much more efficient footballer, taking up the positions he needs to, rather than making runs that might only provide a distraction to the opponent.
“Cristiano knows where his position is,” said Zinedine Zidane after the game. “He knows when to play centre-foward or on the left. The positions he takes, and where he scores his goals — that’s all him.”
Ronaldo has adapted to use the weapons he now has, such as a nous and feel for where he needs to be, as well as the ones he has always had, like a ruthless finish and towering ability in the air.
He might not be the same commanding presence that he once was, but he’s still a decisive one, a player who knows how to win, how to be in the right place to beat even the toughest of opponents.
“He was happy, of course,” said Zidane. “But not content, because he had chances to score more goals.”
Of course that’s how Ronaldo reacted. Of course he reacted to scoring two goals against probably the best team in Europe by cursing himself for not scoring more. What else did we expect?
Before this game, Bayern had won their past 16 Champions League fixtures at the Allianz Arena, a run that stretched back to April 2014. It took Ronaldo to change that.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.