Ron­aldo aims to put club frus­tra­tion to one side as he closes on ton of goals

The National - News - - SPORT - IAN HAWKEY

Cris­tiano Ron­aldo left the big­gest fix­ture in the Ital­ian cal­en­dar early on Sun­day, pro­vok­ing some raised eye­brows.

He had been sub­sti­tuted less than a hour into Ju­ven­tus’s 1-0 win over AC Mi­lan and did not hang around un­til the end to see if his club would hold on to the lead his re­place­ment, Paulo Dy­bala, had given them.

Per­haps Ron­aldo was sim­ply in a hurry to head off for an im­por­tant week in his other role, as cap­tain of Por­tu­gal.

The reign­ing Euro­pean cham­pi­ons may yet need to win both their re­main­ing Group B qual­i­fiers to avoid the play-offs although they will be en­cour­aged by the way the fix­tures have fallen, one tonight at home to Lithua­nia and another on Sun­day in Lux­em­bourg.

Ron­aldo has scored five times against that pair al­ready this sea­son, and if he can take the same lordly at­ti­tude to th­ese next two Por­tuguese-ver­sus-punch­bag con­tests, he will reach a mag­i­cal num­ber: 100 goals for his coun­try. He is on 95; he was on 85 a mere six of his 162 caps ago.

That sort of goalscor­ing run – 10 goals in half a dozen games – was com­mon enough in his club foot­ball when Ron­aldo was at Real Madrid.

It is less ha­bit­ual since he joined Ju­ven­tus in the sum­mer of 2018, the first €100m (Dh 404m) foot­baller over the age of 30. For Juve, Ron­aldo has reg­is­tered a very re­spectable six times this sea­son in 14 games, but just once in his last five games, the 96th-minute penalty that earned a 2-1 win against Genoa. Yes, he was a mat­ter of mil­lime­tres away from claim­ing a goal from a free-kick against Loko­mo­tiv Moscow last week, Aaron Ram­sey toe­ing the ball over the goalline, and, in do­ing so, risk­ing a dark stare from his cel­e­brated col­league.

Ram­sey knows Ron­aldo is not only pedan­ti­cally pos­ses­sive of all his re­mark­able goalscor­ing records but that he also likes any op­por­tu­nity to bur­nish his for­mer glow as a dead-ball virtuoso, es­pe­cially now that Lionel Messi is mak­ing such an art of di­rect free-kicks. That used to be one area where Ron­aldo was Messi’s un­doubted su­pe­rior. It no longer is.

At the week­end, Mau­r­izio Sarri, the Ju­ven­tus man­ager, dared sug­gest Ron­aldo, 34, “has not been as his best”. Cer­tainly, Sarri has not seen him as the like­li­est Juve match-win­ner when a tight con­test needed set­tling. In Moscow, Ram­sey’s early ‘stolen’ goal was matched by Loko­mo­tiv’s Alek­sey Mi­ranchuk af­ter 12 min­utes, and af­ter 70 min­utes, still 1-1, Sarri be­gan to make his changes. On came Dou­glas Costa, then Pablo Dy­bala, re­plac­ing Ron­aldo with eight min­utes to go. Deep into in­jury time, Costa struck the win­ner.

A sim­i­lar pat­tern against Mi­lan. This time, Ron­aldo’s No 7 was the first up on the board, Sarri in­tro­duc­ing Dy­bala as his re­place­ment af­ter 55 min­utes in the fix­ture that mat­ters more than any to tra­di­tion­al­ist ju­ven­tini or mi­lanisti.

Dy­bala’s goal set­tled the three points some ten min­utes be­fore Ron­aldo re­port­edly har­rumphed his way out of the Ju­ven­tus Sta­dium.

Sarri ex­plained both sub­sti­tu­tions as a re­sponse to Ronal

do’s phys­i­cal dis­com­fort, and rolled out the praise. “We must be grate­ful that he made the sacri­fice to play at all. He’s had a knock and if he over com­pen­sates he can dam­age his calf and thigh mus­cles.”

But Sarri also ac­knowl­edged that the com­ments Ron­aldo ap­peared to make on be­ing sub­sti­tuted against Mi­lan were not ex­pressed in the same, care­ful med­i­cal lan­guage.

The Por­tuguese seemed to mut­ter some­thing very crude to­wards the bench. “It’s only nat­u­ral a player is go­ing to be an­noyed to have to leave the pitch,” said Sarri.

As a man­ager whose sub­sti­tu­tions had yielded six points in four days, Sarri could live with the scorn from his star player and he at­tempted to defuse any sense of con­flict by say­ing he did not find it dis­re­spect­ful to

Juve col­leagues that Ron­aldo had marched straight to the dress­ing-room and then out of the build­ing.

In Por­tu­gal, there is, very fa­mously, a very dis­tinct, fa­mous im­age of a sub­sti­tuted Ron­aldo. He had to come off early, in­jured, in the fi­nal against France in Euro 2016 and, for much of what fol­lowed, he hung around very con­spic­u­ously in­deed, al­most as if he had ap­pointed him­self tem­po­rary head coach, bark­ing in­struc­tions from the tech­ni­cal area, his thigh and knee ban­daged, far more an­i­mated than Fer­nando San­tos, who is the ac­tual man­ager.

San­tos tol­er­ated it. He has learned over time that, with Por­tu­gal, Ron­aldo’s role is some­thing for Ron­aldo to ne­go­ti­ate, not for his coach to dic­tate.

EPA

Cris­tiano Ron­aldo train­ing with Por­tu­gal ahead of their Euro 2020 qual­i­fiers against Lithua­nia and Lux­em­bourg

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