CARDIFF, United Kingdom, Jun 4 – Back on the Cardiff turf where he won the first major silverware of his astonishing career, Cristiano Ronaldo cemented his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats with a decisive brace in Real Madrid’s 4-1 victory over Juventus in the Champions League final.
Ronaldo’s maiden trophy came at the Principality Stadium when, aged just 19, he headed the opening goal as Manchester United beat Millwall in the 2004 FA Cup final.
Now, 13 years later, he made a triumphant return to Wales to further his ceaseless quest to be ranked not only as the best of his generation, but the very finest ever to lace up a pair of boots.
Although Ronaldo struck the winning penalty in last year’s Champions League final against Atletico Madrid and also netted in the 2014 final triumph over the same opponents, the Portugal forward was unable to impose himself in either match and endured heavy criticism for his spluttering displays.
With that in mind, Madrid’s bid to win a 12th European Cup served as a referendum on Ronaldo’s right to be mentioned in the same breath as immortals like Alfredo Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff and his old rival Lionel Messi, who all played their best with the biggest prize at stake.
His response to the challenge was emphatic and no-one can question Ronaldo is the equal of Messi after he drew level with the Barcelona striker on four Champions League winners’ medals — three with Madrid and the first with United.
The 20th club trophy of Ronaldo’s career comes at the end of a season in which he also helped Madrid end a five-year title drought in Spain.
It should also ensure he wins another Ballon d’Or to equal Messi’s total of five.
For good measure, Ronaldo’s double took him above Messi to finish as this season’s Champions League top scorer with 12 goals.
“I always do my talking on the pitch. The people that criticise me will need to put their guitar back in the case because once again we won and we are the best,” Ronaldo crowed.
“On a personal level I’m happy. I scored twice and once again I’m top scorer in the Champions League!”
After his previous final struggles, Ronaldo had promised it would be different this time as he arrived in Cardiff fresh and in form, having been rested for nine league games.
His 50th and 51st goals of the season proved he was true to his word.
Rugged Juventus snuffed out Messi in this season’s quarter-finals and initially it seemed they might be able to hold Ronaldo in check as well.
– Immortalised –
It took him seven minutes to get his first touch and it was hardly worth the wait, but Ronaldo was beginning to untangle himself from Juve’s defensive web and he escaped to open the scoring in the 20th minute.
Drifting out to the right to find space, Ronaldo exchanged passes with Dani Carvajal and cleverly glided into the penalty area before guiding a clinical low strike past Gianluigi Buffon, via a slight deflection off Leonardo Bonucci.
In his fifth Champions League final, Ronaldo had become the first player since Madrid legend Di Stefano to score in three European Cup finals.
When Ronaldo was immortalised with a less than flattering bronze bust at Madeira airport recently, there was much laughter at the expense of a man never shy about displaying his chiselled body.
But while Ronaldo’s preening may irk some, the 32-year-old remains a force of nature on the pitch and he ruthlessly killed off Juve in the 64th minute.
Making a perfectly-timed run to the near post, he met Luka Modric’s cross with an ice-cool finish that ensured Madrid would become the first team since AC Milan 27 years ago to win back to back European Cups.
When Ronaldo first celebrated in Cardiff he was wearing gold boots, now the only glitter the king of Madrid cares about is the medal around his neck.