There aren’t many sub-plots left to wrap up in the extraordinary tale of Cristiano Ronaldo, but with a date against the club who set him on his path to greatness awaiting tomorrow evening, the Champions League ties between Real Madrid and Manchester United will prove to be seminal moments in an already illustrious career.
It is a career that has of course seen the 28-year-old win just about everything there is to win within the pastures of European football. Sure, success on the international stage has perhaps proven a step too far even for his mercurial talents and he’s made no secret about his frustration at picking up just the one Ballon d’Or award.
But from his 2008 World Player of the Year award to the Uefa Champions League winners medal he picked up during the same season, there is very little indeed that the Madeira-born forward hasn’t achieved since he first arrived at Old Trafford in 2003.
Yet beneath the pomp, poignancy and sense of occasion that the sight of Ronaldo lining up against Manchester United will bring, the two-legged tie could also prove as something of a landmark occasion for all the wrong reasons should Madrid crash out at the hands of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
The prospect of facing Fergie, Wayne Rooney and the rest of the staff that Ronaldo achieved so much under during his time in Manchester creates a wonderful narrative, but make no mistake about it, the nostalgia of the occasion will make very little difference to just how desperately the Portuguese will want to go through.
Because should Jose Mourinho’s side fail to beat Manchester United over two legs, with La Liga already looking virtually unattainable and success in the Copa del Rey hanging on a second-leg semifinal tie against Barcelona, Ronaldo could find himself with a lot to contemplate at the end of his fourth season with Los Blancos.
This isn’t to speculate that Ronaldo would consider leaving the Santiago Bernabeu nor is it to say that the ex-Sporting man is necessarily unhappy with the way things have gone since he switched the Premier League for La Liga. But while his résumé may well have overflowed with goalscoring records and personal accolades since he made his world-record switch in 2008, one thing that’s not sizeably increased is his medal count.
The looming spectre of Lionel Messi and Barcelona has certainly played its part in ensuring that Ronaldo has just the three honours to his name since joining Real Madrid for £80million. And after racking up 182 goals in 179 games, there’s hardly more Ronaldo could have physically done to try and change the course of recent history.
But although his name will forever sit in the pantheon of footballing greats, defeat to Manchester United in the last 16 of this season’s Uefa Champions League could perhaps leave a very small asterisk next to the side of Real Madrid career.
With Jose Mourinho widely tipped to leave the Bernabeu at the end of the season, this current Madrid side are facing something of a defining period. Despite success in the form of last season’s record-breaking La Liga triumph, the remit for both squad and manager has always been to end what is now over a decade’s long wait to end the club’s European Cup drought.
For Ronaldo, his individual performances might make it impossible to deem his time in Madrid as anything short of an astounding success. But a failure to add to his 2008 Champions League triumph with Manchester United during his spell with Real Madrid so far must leave a bitter taste in the mouth for a man so ruthless in his quest for perfection.
At still only 28-years of age, there is plenty of time for Ronaldo to rectify that statistic and surely it can’t be much longer before Madrid eventually win that record tenth European Cup. After all, as Pep Guardiola – the man who Ronaldo can attribute a fair proportion of the blame for his lack of medals to – once mused, all cycles must come to an end. Soon it will be Madrid’s turn to dominate Spain and Europe for a sustained period once more.
But regardless of why Ronaldo hasn’t achieved more than the one league title, one domestic cup and one Supercopa de Espana, you can’t help but feel the Portuguese’s time in Madrid represents something of a frustrating paradox. It’s within the Santiago Bernabeu that Ronaldo has elevated his game into a gear that few in history have been able to attain; yet in three-and-a-half years there, he has relatively very little in terms of silverware to show for it.
There’s been bad luck, misfortune, penalty shoot-out misses and a certain Messi-shaped shadow that’s hindered him along the way. But perhaps in one of the greatest individuals to have played for the club in Ronaldo, we’re given the greatest reminder that success is built around a team, rather than a solitary presence.
And should Real Madrid fail to beat Manchester United over two legs, there’s every chance that Cristiano Ronaldo could finish his fourth season in Madrid with the status quo remaining on his medal count. There may well be more chapters to come in his Bernabeu tale and maybe history will be the truest judge of this final question, but what will rank higher for the Portuguese – record breaking personal dominance in white or collective trophy attaining glory in red?