Watching Cristiano Ronaldo celebrate winning his third Champions League trophy, having scored the winning penalty in a shoot-out against Atletico, it was hard to give any credence to rumours he will be wearing the red of Manchester again next season.
The match in Milan was typical Ronaldo.
Playing despite an injury scare in the build-up he was clearly not at full pelt because of a thigh strain and yet, despite being on the periphery for long periods, still still made an impact on the game and then took the plaudits and the headlines when it really mattered.
The Portuguese is a glory magnet. He draws success towards him with intense power and once teams are inside his force field there really is no hope; the headline has already been written.
Ronaldo, hobbling through the on-pitch celebrations, suggested as much in his post-match, claiming he had a vision he would score the winning goal and so asked manager Zinedine Zidane to place him fifth on the penalty list instead of first.
That kind of selfish streak doesn’t fit well with everyone – this was Real’s 11th Champions League title but Ronaldo posed for pictures holding up three fingers to represent his own individual tally, having also won the trophy with Real in 2014 and United in 2008.
But when the end result is team success, who can really argue?
“We’re really happy, finals are always hard,” Ronaldo said afterwards. “The team were great and sacrificed a lot. It’s really impressive. I knew I was going to score the winning penalty; I was confident. I’m happy, and I want to share these trophies with all the Madrid fans.”
It was not the statement of a man thinking of leaving the Bernabeu to join Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, despite persistent rumours that a €100m deal is in the offing, and you wonder if that particular dream may be over for another season for Manchester United.
“I’m very happy,” Ronaldo added. “It’s been an excellent season and we’ve won the Champions League, the most difficult trophy to win. There are no words to describe the happiness that we feel: the players, the fans, their families. It’s a special moment.”
The growing relationship between Ronaldo and Zidane, who is perhaps one of the few men in the world who can truly understand what it’s like to have the talent and profile of the former United and Sporting Lisbon star, is obvious too. They celebrated together on the pitch in Milan and swapped compliments in post-match interviews that gave no hint they are likely to be parted in the near future.
“Zidane has done a phenomenal job and he deserves it because he’s a gentleman and is humble,” said Ronaldo, who yet again finished as the competition’s top scorer this season with 16 goals.
For Zidane it was a big moment, too. Already a legend at the Bernabeu his reputation was at risk when he replaced Rafael Benitez four months ago in what essentially is his first managerial role at the top level, but he has added tactical nous and defensive grit to an already strong attacking side and the Champions League trophy was a big reward having narrowly missed out to Barca in La Liga.
It means he has won the trophy as both player and manager with the same club.
Zidane’s pragmatic tweaking of the Real style has been interesting. Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas has kept 10 clean sheets in this season’s tournament – including two against Manchester City - and defence was crucial, too, against derby rival Atletico who, under Diego Simeone, have built a reputation of being one of the most difficult – and awkward – teams in Europe to beat.
Real went ahead after only 15 minutes in controversial style when Sergio Ramos – looking offside - touched home from close range after Gareth Bale had flicked on a Toni Kross free-kick; and they retained that lead by working hard to close down space and matching Atletico’s work ethic in midfield.
There was a crucial moment in the second-half when Pepe brought down Fernando Torres to give away a 48th minute penalty but Atletico’s 33-goal striker Antoine Griezmann clattered his penalty against the crossbar.
Bale then had an effort cleared off the line before Carrasco converted Juanfran’s cross at the far post to take the game to extra-time - and 30 minutes of intense and tactical football.
It was a huge moment for Atletico, who had come within seconds of beating Real in the 2014 final before an injujry-time equaliser from Ramos, and who also went close in 1974; but sadly for them there was more heartbreak ahead.
In the end it all came down to a penalty shoot-out with Lucas Vazquez, Marcelo, Bale, Ramos and, of course, Ronaldo all scoring while Juanfran missed for Atletico, his penalty coming back off the woodwork. It was if the script had been written in advance; and if you believe CR7 then it probably had.
Navas 7, Carvajal 6 (Danilo 52; 6), Ramos 8, Pepe 6, Marcelo 7; Casemiro 6, Kroos 7 (Isco 72; 5), Modric 8; Bale 8, Ronaldo 6, Benzema 6 (Vaz quez 77; 6).
Subs not used:
Casilla, Nachez, Rodriguez, Jese
Oblak 8; Juanfran 6, Savic 7, Godin 7, Filipe Luis 6 (Hernandez 109); Saul 7, Gabi 8, Augusto 5 (Carrasco 46; 8), Koke 7 (Partey 116); Griezmann 5, Torres 5.
Subs not used:
Moya, Gimenez, Tiago, Correa
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved