Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick sends Juventus through as Atletico Madrid lose to sickeningly familiar foe

Juventus 3(3) Atletico Madrid 0(2): This was as much a rejoinder as a rejoicing, a reminder that even at the age of 34, in a foreign city and with his primacy in doubt, this is still what Ronaldo does

Jonathan Liew
Allianz Stadium
Tuesday 12 March 2019 22:56
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UEFA Champions League round of 16 draw

In many ways, the 52nd hat-trick of Cristiano Ronaldo’s career was very much like the others. It was brutal, irresistible, dominant and domineering, the loot of a bully. In another sense, however, this will have meant more than most.

Quite apart from the fact that it was his first for Juventus and single-handedly pillaged a Champions League last-16 tie that many felt was dead on arrival in Turin, it was as much a rejoinder as a rejoicing: a reminder that even at the age of 34, in a foreign city and with his primacy in doubt, this is still what he does.

With four minutes left to play, his right-footed penalty nestled into the corner of Jan Oblak’s net to win the tie on aggregate and eliminate Diego Simeone’s stunned Atletico side. That first Champions League will have to wait for another year: on a crisp night in the foothills of the Italian Alps, they discovered that even the most impenetrable of safes can be blown open if you pack enough dynamite.

For the rest of us, a reminder that primal urges die hard. While the goals have poured forth for Ronaldo in Serie A like candies from a beaten pinata - 19 so far - he had just one in his last nine Champions League games. If the vultures weren’t quite circling, then it was at least legitimate to question whether Ronaldo was still one of those players who could win a game through sheer force of personality.

And then, of course, there has been the lingering rape accusation dating back a decade, through which Ronaldo - publicly at least, seems to have brazened through like a defender’s shoulder barge. This will, at least, give those who prefer to ignore it plenty of reasons to do so.

But to lay this triumph solely at the hands of Ronaldo would be to do a disservice to many. To coach Massimiliano Allegri, for one, who pulled off a tactical coup: using the full width of the pitch, drawing Atletico out of their tight central cage, and then plundering the extra space in the channels. Juventus didn’t waste their time trying to play their way through. Instead the full-backs Leonardo Spinazzola and Joao Cancelo pushed high, Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci pumped plenty of diagonal balls to Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic, and ultimately Atletico were strafed, carpet-bombed, blitzed from the skies.

Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi won the midfield battle against Saul and Rodri. Chiellini producing another chiselled, grizzled performance at the heart of the Juventus defence, and occasionally at the heart of the attack, venturing forward with abandon. How badly Atletico missed Diego Costa, whose bovine presence up front so successfully destabilised Juventus in the first leg, but who was suspended for this game. After being pinned back from the opening minutes, they never really managed to pick their way out. As they tried forlornly to burgle the away goal that would have kept them alive, they looked tired, they looked brittle, even perhaps - and this was a shock - a little soft.

Not that this was immediately apparent, not even after Juventus seized the early initiative, Ronaldo pumping his arms to fire up the fans in the Curva Sud after a spell of concerted pressure. It was fast and it was furious, but for the first 25 minutes not all that precise, Juventus’s attacking lather amounting to very little. With Koke and Thomas Lemar tucking in to create almost a back six for Atletico, and even Antoine Griezmann chipping in to make a beefy tackle on the edge of his own 18-yard box, Atletico looked besieged, but secure enough: a bolted door in a raging storm.

And yet it was at the very moment when Atletico seemed to have regained their equilibrium that they violently lost it again. Federico Bernadeschi’s cross from the left seemed more hopeful than anything else, and yet from the moment it left his foot, Ronaldo was hunting it down. And while it was the sort of goal people like to conceive as pure, alpha-male will, in a way it was really the product of decades of deadlifts, sit-ups and learned, hard-wired experience: knowing exactly when to leap, exactly how to lever his weight to keep Juanfran pinned to the ground and use him as support, exactly where to meet the ball to thud it past Oblak at his near post, put Juventus 1-0 up and send the Curva Sud into paroxysms of longing.

Ronaldo single-handedly turned this tie around

Shortly before half-time, Alvaro Morata had a glorious chance to level the match on the night, but put his header over from six yards. This, in many ways, encapsulated the difference between the two sides. Certainly Ronaldo was not going to make a similar mistake on 49 minutes when he rose above Diego Godin to head home Cancelo’s cross: Oblak clawing it desperately off the line, but not before it had crossed by an inch.

Atletico looked traumatised. In fits and starts, they stumbled forward, trying to build something. But the parts weren’t quite moving yet. Lemar’s punishment for losing the ball in the build-up to the second goal was to be withdrawn for Angel Correa on 56 minutes. But it was to be Correa who fatally erred late on, as Bernadeschi burned around the outside of him, surged into the area, felt a hand on the back, and gratefully crumpled to the turf.

Ronaldo never looked like missing: pumping home the penalty with such force it struck the camera in the goal-net, leaving it punch-drunk and on the turf, like a beaten boxer. It was a fair metaphor for Atletico, who fought and scrapped, but were ultimately overpowered by a team, and a player, who refused to be go quietly into the night.

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