It was always going to happen eventually — it’s just that nobody could’ve predicted how insanely long it’d take for age and the grind of professional sports to somewhat catch up to Cristiano Ronaldo. The 34-year-old has played 982 matches for club and country over the last 17 years, and although he remains decisive, indomitable and a catalyst for one of the world’s best teams, he’s beginning to show signs of what Louis C.K. referred to as “incurable shitty ankle.”
Father Time comes for all of us, and to listen to Juventus manager Maurizio Sarri tell it, it’s taking its toll on Ronaldo at the moment.
On Sunday, Ronaldo was hauled off in the 55th minute of Juve’s clash with AC Milan at Allianz Stadium in Turin. Ronaldo, of course, is very rarely substituted, and to see him hooked only 10 minutes into the second half is something like a sign of the apocalypse.
During his time on the pitch, Ronaldo mustered only one shot, was caught offside once, completed 21 of 28 passes and one of two dribbles. It was the definition of a subdued performance, quantified by the fact that his replacement — the 25-year-old Paulo Dybala — scored the winner in the 77th minute.
Dybala with the sleek turn and finish pic.twitter.com/cN8gR8zV2D— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 10, 2019
Ronaldo didn’t help himself by glaring at Sarri while coming off the pitch, directing some choice words at his coach and then heading directly to the locker room. According to Sky Sports Italia, Ronaldo left the stadium three minutes before the match even finished.
Sarri, however, only wanted to thank Ronaldo for making himself available despite a lingering knee complaint (i.e. “incurable shitty ankle”).
“I have no problem with Cristiano, he should be thanked because he made himself available despite not being in the best condition,” said Sarri. “In the last month he has had discomfort in his knee and this is a little problem for him. … He was hit in a training session. He suffered a knee bruise. Maybe the right knee, if I remember correctly. It’s not a big issue, no twist, only a bruise at the collateral ligament. When he steps he can’t push as usual, but I am not worried about it.”
This was the same message after Ronaldo was taken off in the 82nd minute of Juve’s Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow on Nov. 6. Just like on Sunday, Juve would go on to find the winner in that one once the Portuguese legend had left the field.
“Ronaldo is not in great shape at the moment, as over the last few days he’s had a bad knee, so to compensate for it he is putting more strain on the adductor,” Sarri said. “He was already irritable towards halftime because it was causing him problems. On a sprint, he made a movement I didn’t like the look of, so I was afraid he’d really hurt himself and decided it was best to take him off.”
It’s difficult to see when Ronaldo could be afforded a period of rest. With Inter Milan only trailing Juve by one point in the table, this figures to be the closest Serie A title race in recent memory. What’s more, Ronaldo will play a vital role as Portugal’s captain over the upcoming international break.
If Portugal defeats Lithuania on Nov. 14 and Luxembourg on Nov. 17, they’ll achieve automatic qualification to Euro 2020. There’s no way Ronaldo doesn’t figure heavily in both matches.
It’s worth remembering that while Ronaldo is still admirably committed to the national team, there are those like Jamie Vardy — two years younger than Ronaldo — who’ve already called time on their international careers. In the case of Vardy, that decision certainly appears to be helping extend his club career as he’s currently the Premier League’s leading scorer.
And so Ronaldo’s current form has begun to attract criticism from people who actually know what they’re talking about, and not just Lionel Messi fanboys on Twitter.
“The truth is that Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t dribbled past an opponent for three years,” said legendary manager Fabio Capello on Sunday. “I did the LaLiga commentary when he usually took the double step and left you there. Inside him is a super-champion, the best of all, but now there is Dybala and Douglas Costa, who made two sensational goals. Dybala is in excellent condition can make the difference, as can Douglas Costa.
“They win games without Ronaldo. Juve seemed dependent on him, instead the great squad and the quality of the players helps them win anyway. Bravo Sarri, who had the courage to take him off, it takes personality, especially thinking that all the players in the squad can play and make a difference. Cristiano did it for a while, but now it’s not him and he must recover — especially on a physical level. He does not have the speed and dynamism he has shown at other times.”
Juve goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny echoed these sentiments, saying: “Ronaldo leaving? We are not worried, when a player of this level is removed from the pitch it is normal to get angry. He is a great player, but in this period, he is not doing very well.”
The numbers say it all: In the Champions League this season, Ronaldo is averaging a goal every 24 shots. In Serie A, it’s a goal every 8.8 shots. Those are bad returns. For comparison's sake, Messi is currently averaging a goal every 3.5 shots.
However, this is the same hot take that seemingly permeates around the world every November/December/January. Then the Champions League knockout stages begin, Ronaldo decimates an elite club with a hat-trick and the cycle begins anew. It's been as certain as the changing of the seasons over the last five years.
As long as Ronaldo’s mobile then Sarri’s going to utilize him, but the days of Ronaldo being guaranteed 90 minutes on the pitch might be drawing to a close. It might be time for Ronaldo 4.0.