MADRID — At one stage of Real Madrid’s Champions League semifinal destruction of Atletico Madrid, it seemed to be a case of one No. 7 coming to the party and the other staying at home. But in the end, that perspective would do not only Cristiano Ronaldo but also Antoine Griezmann a disservice.
That simplistic comparison, legitimately based around Griezmann’s emergence as a genuine heir to Ronaldo’s crown as football’s most magnificent seven, was ultimately rendered meaningless by the Real forward’s stunning hat trick of a first-half header and two second-half strikes.
Griezmann is a player of great talent, one who could yet become football’s biggest star when Ronaldo and Lionel Messi vacate the stage, but the 26-year-old Atletico forward remains a mere mortal when placed alongside the two players who have ruled planet football for the past decade.
Yes, this was the Frenchman’s night to lift Atletico to new heights, against Real in their own backyard, but when Ronaldo is in this kind of mood, nobody is going to steal the spotlight. And no one did.
Get ready for the stats: This was Ronaldo’s second hat trick against Atletico this season, his third in total against Real’s neighbours and his 42nd for Real since he moved to the Bernabeu from Manchester United in June 2009. That’s right: 42nd.
He has now scored 103 goals in 138 Champions League games, 13 of them in semifinals, and this hat trick moves him level with Messi on seven in UEFA’s premier competition.
Just to make life a little easier for Atletico, Ronaldo has scored more hat tricks against Sevilla (6), Espanyol (5) and Celta Vigo (4), but it is only the smallest crumb of comfort for Atleti to be fourth on his list of hat-trick victims.
As such, Ronaldo has given Real a huge advantage ahead of next Wednesday’s second leg at the Vicente Calderon, despite being written off by many observers as a player in decline.
Injuries are beginning to catch up with the 32-year-old, and those trademark step-overs are not quite as lightning quick as they once were. And yes, his goal-scoring output is slowing down, with this hat trick taking him to only 35 goals in all competitions this season.
Thirty-five? No wonder he is being written off.
But it is on nights such as this when the reality of Ronaldo’s genius is shown for all to see. Such have been the standards he and Messi have set in recent years that any slight drop in their incredible statistics hints at a waning of their powers and leads to penning of their footballing obituaries.
Yet at 32, with his body sometimes battered and bruised by 15 years at the top level, Ronaldo was still able to tear apart an Atletico team that reached this stage of the competition by being one of the most organised and miserly defences in the Champions League.
Ronaldo did not simply score a hat trick. He scored it against one of the best teams in the world, against defenders of the quality of Diego Godin and a goalkeeper as highly rated as Jan Oblak.
When Sir Alex Ferguson sanctioned the world-record £80 million sale of Ronaldo to Real eight years ago, the former United manager claimed at the time that the Spanish giants had secured themselves a bargain. Regardless of Real’s mammoth outlay, Ferguson has been proven right because Ronaldo has repaid the club countless times over.
He has erased club legends such as Raul out of the Real record books and inspired them to two Champions League titles, with a third within touching distance following this virtuoso display against Atletico.
Much of it is due to his incredible work ethic and desire to improve, a trait stretching back to his time at Old Trafford, when he would take out a bag of balls on his own after training while wearing ankle weights to practice his step-overs and free kicks.
He has always been engaged in the pursuit of perfection and has arguably gone beyond that because he has stretched the boundaries of perfection by recording such incredible career statistics.
This was another chapter in the Ronaldo story. The night when he reminded his own club’s supporters, Atletico Madrid and the world that he is still in business.
But let’s drag it back to the initial narrative, of Real’s fading star taking on Atletico’s rising sun, for not only a place in the Champions League final but also ownership of the pedestal of greatness that Ronaldo has owned in Madrid since the day he arrived.
Griezmann had been regarded as a threat to his supremacy, but no longer.
Perhaps we had allowed ourselves to believe that Ronaldo had fallen far enough to be compared to other footballers than Messi, but that was wrong. Ronaldo is still the main man, and don’t Atletico know it.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_