Messi, Maradona, Pele… and Ronaldo – Real Madrid’s finest belongs among all-time greats
Pete Jenson insists Cristiano Ronaldo is the most likely player to leave you shaking your head and asking: 'how is it possible that he is still doing this?'
Ever notice how whenever there’s an argument about where to rank Cristiano Ronaldo, it is generally in comparison with Leo Messi?’
And yet whenever there is an argument about where to rank Messi, it’s usually in the context of Maradona and Pele? Of one we ask ‘is he the best there is?' Of the other we ask: ‘Is he the best there has ever been?’
Maybe it’s time to be fair to Cristiano. Maybe, just like the man he will meet at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday night, Ronaldo should be up there with Alfredo Di Stefano, whose feats he continues to surpass at Madrid; and with Pele and Maradona. It's snobbery to say otherwise.
Cristiano RonaldoGetty Images
Ronaldo is more prose than poetry, we know that. He’s never scored slaloming past defenders from the halfway line (it was the 10 year anniversary of that goal this week - see below). But the inexhaustible consistency: the sheer relentlessness, the ability to gobble-up records like Pac-Man swallowing pac-dots through the maze of his career, is just as worthy.
On Sunday at the Bernabeu, Messi comes into the second Clasico of the season having fallen face-first out of the Champions League, still not able to score past Gianluigi Buffon, and now in danger of finishing the season with only a Cup winners' medal. And Ronaldo, in contrast, arrives fresh from five goals in two legs against Bayern Munich.
He is playing fewer games than ever this season. Zinedine Zidane has convinced him that to have greater effect in the matches that matter, he needs to sit-out more of the games that don’t. He has been told to rest eight times this season – that’s eight times more than previous managers have dared to suggest he watch matches from the sidelines.
The idea is that he peaks in April and May. So far it’s working. If he scores on Sunday, April will have been his most prolific month this season.
Cristiano RonaldoGetty Images
His move into a more central position also threatens to put years on his career. It’s bad news for Karim Benzema – taken off on Tuesday night so that Ronaldo could play more centrally. And it’s bad news for Alvaro Morata, who will probably leave to join Chelsea in the summer. But it’s good news for those who took Jorge Mendes at his word two years ago when he said Ronaldo would go on playing and scoring at the top level until he was 40.
Driven by his own desire to be the best – something that occasionally displays itself in the cringeworthy cursing of a team-mate who has scored instead of him, but more often than not apparent only in his own dedication to the pursuit of scoring goals – he shows no sign of fading.
Not everyone in Madrid is happy with him. You do wonder about the football brain of a supporter who boos the player who has scored more goals for his team than any other in history. Do they moan through every summer holiday they ever go on, cursing the racket made by the sound of the waves crashing against the shore, the glare of the sun as it slowly goes down behind the mountains, sending back the beers while they are at it, because they are too cold?
Cristiano Ronaldo fansGetty Images
The vast majority of Madrid supporters do appreciate what they have. And know they are experiencing something that will not be repeated for generations. In the modern era they have seen some great players. Their current manager was one of them. But his pirouettes and that dipping volley in Glasgow in the 2002 Champions League final were moments in time. Ronaldo is 24/7, round the clock.
If you could only ever see one more match, one more player, one more performance in your lifetime... Maybe you would still opt for a Maradona archive display. You might still go for Messi – and let no-one rule out him striking back in the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday. Maybe those two are more likely to take your breath away. But Ronaldo is still the most likely to leave you shaking your head and asking: 'how is it possible that he is still doing this?'
If Real Madrid win the Clasico on Sunday they will be six points clear with a game in hand. The league will be practically theirs. If Ronaldo goes on to inspire a Champions League win too – it will have been an extraordinary 12 months that began with him winning the Euros.
He could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels after coming out on top at France 2016. There was never a chance of that, and that’s why he should be uttered in the same breath as the all-time greats.
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