Juventus vs Atletico Madrid: Cristiano Ronaldo shows why Antoine Griezmann will never be his equal

The uncharitable reading of Ronaldo is that the more you find to admire, the less you find to like, but it’s tempting to imagine that the only thing separating Griezmann from greatness is the hunger to be hated

Jonathan Liew
Wednesday 13 March 2019 12:32 GMT
Cristiano Ronaldo unveiled as a Juventus player

With a leap and a bound, Cristiano Ronaldo was gone. There were fist-pumps in the press box, tantrums on the touchline, chaos in the Curva Sud. Juventus had beaten Atletico Madrid by three goals to nil, and after the celebrations had been dispensed with, after he had violently thrust his crotch in the general direction of the world and everyone in it, it was put to him that Juventus had never managed a comeback like this in the Champions League before. Ronaldo’s answer was tart. “Maybe that’s why they signed me,” he retorted.

Three goals, just as he had predicted in advance. Just another night’s work for a footballer of the most cartoonish bravado, who even after a decade and a half of thrusting hips and ostentatious posing and ridiculous feats and naming his son Cristiano Jr, still possesses the power to move the emotional dial in every conceivable direction. And to watch Ronaldo in his moment of triumph was to feel all sorts of things at once: shock and awe wrapped up in a sort of crushing banality, light-headedness and lust and revulsion all rolled into a torrid, turbulent whole.

The uncharitable reading of Ronaldo is that the more you find to admire, the less you find to like. But even that flattens the issue somewhat. If it’s hard to adore Ronaldo straightforwardly for a multitude of reasons, then it’s also hard to hate him straightforwardly: at least, if you also love football and its wondrous, infinite possibilities. Nor is this a simple case of separating the artist from the art. Somehow, in his comportment and his demeanour, Ronaldo manages to push both buttons at once. You despise him even as he inspires your reverence, and on some level you’re bleakly aware that to him, they may as well be the same thing.

They certainly love him in Turin. The fact that Juventus are now in the last eight is almost of tangential relevance here. Football fans weigh their devotion not in Uefa coefficient points, but in memories, and even if Ronaldo does nothing else in his Juventus career - even if he sees out the rest of his lucrative contract watching daytime television and eating Maoam - they’ll still have this night. The two towering headers. The imperious late penalty. The taut and reassuring look of a man whose very mission in life - for now, at least - aligns spectacularly with theirs.

Around the same time Ronaldo was doing a passable impression of a Magaluf stag weekender, Antoine Griezmann was standing in front of the cameras, looking thoroughly fed up. “We never got our game going,” he said. “We picked a bad day to f*** up. We all feel screwed, me the first. They were superior on all levels. I couldn’t get into the game.”

It was a poor night for Griezmann, both in the concrete and the abstract. He had just one touch in the Juventus penalty area and completed just 16 passes. His only shot went flying over the bar in the first half. And in a broader sense, it was a game that encapsulated his few limitations: trapped in a gameplan and a tilting momentum that utterly neutered him, he found himself unable to escape his negative spiral and provide the single moment of defiance that would have kept Atletico in the competition.

And ultimately, that was the tie in its condensed form. Griezmann had many justifications for his low output on Tuesday night, but nonetheless you suspect that the player he aspires to be would somehow have found a way to get the goal Atletico needed. It’s seven months since he was widely pilloried - a little unfairly - for agreeing in an interview with AS that he was “eating at the same table” as Messi and Ronaldo. Of course, when you’ve got Griezmann’s talent, why not aim for the very best? But while his goal tally (124 in his last four seasons in all competitions) is perfectly elite, the suspicion remains that when it comes to the really big moments - the career-defining goals, the pinch points in huge games - then at club level at least, he’s still a level away from the top tier.

Now, of course you’re going to argue that Griezmann is no Messi or Ronaldo, either in style or numbers. We all know that. He knows that. “I'm a different type of player compared to Cristiano, Messi, Neymar or Mbappe,” he has said. “I'm never going to be a 50-goals-per-season player.” But in many ways, this is the point. Whether for France or for Atletico, for Didier Deschamps or Diego Simeone, Griezmann slides adeptly and uncomplainingly into the system. When Ronaldo is on fire, by contrast, he is the system.

Ronaldo remains the man that the more you find to admire, the less you find to like
Ronaldo remains the man that the more you find to admire, the less you find to like (AFP/Getty)

And so occasionally, when the tactics are awry, you get nights like Tuesday night. Lots of selfless, hopeless runs. Too much scurrying around in midfield trying to plug holes in a listing defensive ship. By the time Atletico finally started to show a little more enterprise in the second half, he was short of rhythm and still largely unable to influence play. The hurt in his voice afterwards suggested that this is a defeat that will stay with him for a while.

Here, then, we come to perhaps the fundamental distinction between these two very different men. Griezmann is a player of light and shade, a work in progress, a study in self-analysis and introspection and making your mistakes (the blackface costume of a couple of years ago was a particular nadir, and one that elicited a swift apology) in the harshest of spotlights. “I just don’t know what to do,” he pondered aloud in his much-mocked The Decision documentary last summer while trying to choose between moving to Barcelona or staying at Atletico. Yet for all the inherent lameness of the format, at its heart was a slightly awkward tale of a young man laying bare his inner turmoil. Is it remotely possible to envisage Ronaldo exhibiting his self-doubt so publicly? Or admitting after a defeat that he “f****d up”?

You get the idea that Griezmann will not forget this defeat for a long time (AFP/Getty)
You get the idea that Griezmann will not forget this defeat for a long time (AFP/Getty) (Getty)

Maybe when he was younger. Not now, not when you’ve got this down to a fine art, this business of masks upon masks, of indomitable strength and uncomplicated machismo. Not when time and trophies have hardened you. Not when you leave the Wanda Metropolitano after a 2-0 defeat holding up five fingers to the cameras to illustrate all the European Cups you’ve won. It’s tempting to imagine that the only thing separating Griezmann from greatness is the hunger to be hated. Then again, maybe that’s just not the way he’s wired. Maybe there’s only room in this game for one Ronaldo, and one Griezmann. And maybe that’s fine.

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