In one inspired string of passes on Sunday night in Turin, Juventus ran away with an important win over AC Milan.
With more than 80 percent of game time elapsed, Bianconeri Forward A controlled the ball and faced up a defender 1-on-1. Electing to take possession into the center of the pitch, he darted to his right, squirmed between a couple more defenders, and side-footed a pass to Forward B, who deftly one-touched back to the lurking Rodrigo Bentancur. The midfielder then threaded the ball through to Forward C, who clipped the ball off his foot back immediately to Forward B, who deked one direction, shedding a defender, and then waltzed into the box with a quick-fire right-footed shot to bury the competition.
One year ago, I could’ve easily imagined this scenario — no matter the coach. But if you had told me one year ago that Forward A was Douglas Costa, Forward B was Paulo Dybala, and Forward C was Gonzalo Higuain, I probably would’ve laughed in your face, or asked where you got your moonshine.
Forward X, aka Cristiano Ronaldo, was nowhere to be found this weekend in Turin.
To designate one of the greatest players of all time as “beleaguered” might seem strange, but the truth is often strange, and Ronaldo is certainly beleaguered. In fact, he’s been the worst Juventus forward of the last six weeks, a stretch of poor form that started long before whatever knee injury from which he may currently be recovering (an injury that hasn’t kept him from joining the Portuguese national team during the break).
On the one hand, this isn’t a great situation for anybody. You never want to see your €100 million acquisition, whose salary is equivalent to one additional signing per year, struggle to this degree. But Juventus fans should not freak out too much at this juncture, and I suspect the optimist may even discern an auspicious future amidst Ronaldo’s struggles.
Ronaldo’s struggles in a bit more detail
Watching Ronaldo over the past handful of games has been difficult, and looking at his numbers over that stretch of games is even more difficult.
To this point in the Champions League, he has a single goal. That goal happened to be the third in a 3-0 romp of Bayer Leverkusen in Turin on Oct. 1, in the final 180 seconds of the 90 minutes. Perhaps more indicative of Ronaldo’s poor form than the meaninglessness of that goal was the fact that he missed several other golden opportunities earlier in the game, including one set up on a silver platter from Higuain.
And that’s the most shocking thing about Ronaldo’s play: not just that he hasn’t scored, but that he’s had his chances and still hasn’t scored.
In Serie A, Ronaldo has tallied just five goals, two of which came from the spot. Ciro Immobile leads the league with 14 goals, trailed in second place by Romelu Lukaku with nine. The last time we’ve seen a goal from open play from CR7 was on Oct, 19 against Bologna. And please don’t tell me that Aaron Ramsey’s tap-in is taking anything away from Ronaldo, as with our without the Welshman’s influence on the ball that was just a gaffe on the goalkeeper’s part.
Ronaldo hasn’t been scoring. His touch has looked off. His shots have been erratic. And it’s all very depressing.
Someone will surely come to his defense by decrying the talent in Juve’s midfield against the superior midfield of Real Madrid, but it’s kind of a moot argument for me. If Los Blancos’ midfield was so crucial to Ronaldo’s success, is Ronaldo as good as we thought he was? (Peep Karim Benzema’s numbers, if you dare.)
The good news: everybody else is on fire
Juventus have gone on to keep winning games, the razor-thin margins notwithstanding, and the Juventus attackers not named Ronaldo all look pretty damn lethal at the moment
Douglas Costa came back from his injury issues to absolutely sucker-punch Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia in the waning moments of a dreary affair. Dybala started his comeback tour a few weeks earlier against the same opponent, rescuing the Old Lady with a brace, and of course he came to the rescue again over the weekend with his right foot, if you’d believe it.
The single most in-form Juventus player at the moment has to be Higuain, who’s contributing goals and assists left and right but who, more than anything, has regained his touch, his swagger, and his holistic influence on the pitch. When Higuain is at his best, he makes runs that nobody else sees, shifting back lines with his forays; he tracks back at just the right moment to aid in the build-up; he plays with his back to goal or drifts out wide to facilitate in a different way; he manufactures chances at the blink of an eye.
We’ve seen all of that and more in recent weeks from Pipita, and it’s probably one of the more shocking developments — if under-covered — in all of European football if you saw pouty Pipita in Milan and London a season ago.
The LeBron James scenario
If you’re a fan of basketball, you’re probably aware that LeBron James, after some murmurs of his age and minutes played and performances all declining, is back to ravaging opponents in the NBA. The Los Angeles Lakers may or may not win a title this year — the competition, for what seems like the first time in a long time, is stiff — but regardless of where they finish, James has done a thing that all of the greats do: They find that little bit of gas left in the tank and slam their foot on the freaking pedal.
Cristiano Ronaldo is Cristiano Ronaldo, and he’s probably going to return to being the Cristiano Ronaldo we’re all used to — despite his age, despite his injury, despite the Juventus midfield or whatever other Juventus-centric excuses you’d like to fabricate.
For the optimist Juventus fan, that’s the silver lining here. With Ronaldo in what could be the worst form of his professional career over the last decade, his side is still winning, and his teammates are picking up the slack. If and when he returns to form, No. 7 is going to join a cadre of men on fire, and that’s going to be bad news for the rest of the peninsula (and Sardinia, too, I suppose), and for all of Europe.
So Juventus fans shouldn’t panic, at least not yet. This is probably going to be fine.
The pessimist scenario (please skip if you’re prone to Juve nihilism)
Just to entertain a thought, here’s how this goes bad: Ronaldo struggles on and off the rest of the year in Turin, makes a lot of grumbles next summer and gets himself sold back to Real Madrid or some cosmic joke like Manchester City, and that’s when he storms back to being Cristiano Ronaldo, while Juve are left with some broken dreams and 100,000 leftover No. 7 jerseys.