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07th Mar 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo is now the antithesis of the player who joined Manchester United

"In the dressing room, he’d have all the players transfixed with his skills. He’d spend twenty minutes most days taking the piss with his tricks"

Robert Redmond

“In the dressing room, he’d have all the players transfixed with his skills. He’d spend twenty minutes most days taking the piss with his tricks.”

Cristiano Ronaldo scored the decisive goals in both legs of Real Madrid’s Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain. After the French side took the lead at the Bernabeu in the first-leg, Ronaldo scored the equaliser and then put Madrid ahead. One goal was a penalty and the other ricocheted in off Ronaldo’s knee – but penalties can be missed and a player has to get into the right position to get the luck Ronaldo did that night for his second goal.

On Tuesday night, in the second-leg in Paris, he proved yet again he is the ultimate big-game player. Ronaldo rose at the back post to hammer home a header following a quick-break by Madrid. The tie was dead as a contest from that point. Ronaldo has netted 15 goals in his last nine games and has scored in every Champions League match this season, the latest statistic to add to his ridiculous roll-call of records.

The most striking aspect of watching the 2018-version of Ronaldo, other than that he always seems to decide the big games he features in, is how minimalist he has become. The 33-year-old plays on the edges of matches, waiting for a moment to make an impact. Ronaldo only had 56 touches in the game on Tuesday – the seventh-most of Madrid’s players on the night – but his goal typified what he has become as a player.

Marco Asensio won the ball off Dani Alves on the halfway line and broke into PSG’s half. Karim Benzema created space with a decoy run, Lucas Vazquez ran into it, Asensio found him with a clever reverse pass and Vazquez lofted the ball to the back post for Ronaldo to finish. That was it, tie over. Ronaldo may not have been really involved in the game, but he settled it, and that’s all that really matters at that level of competition, and at this stage of his career.

The contrast between the current version of Ronaldo and the player who arrived at Old Trafford as a skinny teenager couldn’t be greater, as a passage from Gary Neville’s autobiography highlights.

“In the dressing room, he’d have all the players transfixed with his skills,” Neville wrote.

“He’d spend twenty minutes most days taking the piss with his tricks. He’d do stuff so good I couldn’t even work out how he did it – like pretending to kick a ball in your face and, as you dived for cover, dragging it back on to his foot so you looked an idiot. He could disco-dance and juggle a ball at the same time. He loved the ball, he loved the game.”

15 years later, there are no more stepovers for the sake of it, the explosive bursts past opponents are less-frequent. There are no more tricks, he doesn’t try to take the piss out of opponents or entertain. Ronaldo is now the ultimate differential in a big match, a stripped down version of his past self as a player, all-business and end product.

This process began at United in 2006, when he went from inconsistent winger to powerhouse forward and became the team’s talisman. As Neville wrote, “All of a sudden his selection of pass, his decision-making when it came to beating the man or laying it off, became so much more ruthless and consistent.”

However, he has since reinvented himself again and has become a purer version of the player he had been in his twenties. He has taken this ruthlessness to the next level – since turning 30 in 2015, he has scored 149 goals. His advanced age for a footballer is undoubtedly a factor in this process of becoming more spartan and drifting to the edge of games, but it could also be argued that it is about mentality, a reflection of his experience in his early days at United.

When he won his fifth Ballon d’Or last December, Ronaldo declared that he is the greatest footballer in history. In this moment of great personal triumph, in reaching the summit of the world’s most competitive sport, he also took the time to thank those who helped him reach the top, including three of his former United teammates.

“I realised that I was good at Manchester United, when I played with players like Giggs, Keane or Ferdinand. I had talent. The English mentality is different and those people helped me a lot to be what I am now. I have to thank my colleagues in Manchester.”

Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs have all long retired, Sir Alex Ferguson too, and that great United side is now a distant memory. But the team’s “mentality” lives on in Ronaldo and was on show in Paris on Tuesday night in Madrid’s win. As Ferdinand has previously said, he and his United teammates gave the young Ronaldo rough treatment in training because he wanted to entertain and show-off but they wanted to win. Everything was geared towards victory. If something didn’t help the team reach its goals, then it had to be discarded.

Ronaldo now completely embodies this mentality. He’s all about winning, he has shed everything else and distilled his game down to being the difference maker for his team.

This is why there’s probably no point even looking at most of his in-game statistics anymore. In the first-leg against PSG, the Portuguese forward had 30 touches and 10 of those were shots. This is clearly a ridiculous return, but ultimately it didn’t matter. He scored twice and helped his team take control of the tie.

Lionel Messi is the best footballer of his generation and possibly the best ever, but Ronaldo is the sport’s greatest competitor. His incredible drive is innate, but it was honed at United and continues to propel him to new heights. Ronaldo is now the antithesis of the player who arrived at Old Trafford. There are no frills, no tricks, nothing flashy and there’s no desire to entertain. He scores goals, goals win games and trophies, and nothing else matters to him now.