Ronaldo and Juventus declines coalesce in Porto elimination
While Ronaldo is the unfortunate emblem of their latest failing, in reality, he is symbolic of an expensive gamble Juventus made which simply hasn't paid off
It felt like a defining image. Very briefly - for no more than three seconds - the cameras cut away from the Porto celebrations, focusing instead on Cristiano Ronaldo.
Having turned his back on Sérgio Oliveira's late free-kick, the ball had zipped under his foot and beyond Wojciech Szczęsny. As the gravity of what had just occurred washed over him, he had barely moved from the spot, slumping to a squatting position.
There have been times these past few years when it has seemed as if the Champions League's very existence was only there to provide us with a steady flow of reminders of Ronaldo's brilliance. No matter how high the odds were heaped against his team, he would somehow find a way to produce something scarcely believable to flip things back in their favour.
But not here; not this night.
THIS IS TRULY INCREDIBLE!!!!
Sérgio Oliveira scores for 10-man Porto and the visitors are on the brink of going through!
WHAT. A. GAME! pic.twitter.com/PkUAlrfxd5
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 9, 2021
In a competition in which he has contributed so much, here he found himself cast in the unfamiliar role of fall guy as Juventus, yet again, fell to a premature exit.
To say this was solely down to Ronaldo, would, of course, be unfair. Across two legs, Juve collectively sold themselves short against inferior opposition. His error was one of many, and no worse than, for example, the under-hit Rodrigo Bentancur back pass which set the tone for their elimination in the opening minute in Portugal.
Defeat to Porto ensured that Juve's wait for a Champions League title will tick on past the 25-year mark. For all their domestic dominance, failure to convert it into a continental crown is something which clearly predates Ronaldo's arrival in Turin.
And yet, as unfair as it may seem, his presence is impossible to overlook. The very fact he was brought to Italy, after all, was so that Juve could finally end their wait, to make that final push towards European glory.
His arrival - in spite of his age - felt as close to a guarantee of Champions League success as was humanly possible, and every passing year in which he fails to deliver it, the decision to sign him is inevitably subject to further scrutiny.
Their inability to go beyond the quarter-finals - let alone win the competition - these past three years is the reason many will affix blame to Ronaldo. While he is the unfortunate emblem of their latest failing, in reality, he is symbolic of an expensive gamble Juventus made which simply hasn't paid off.
Ronaldo remains one of the most prolific goal scorers at the top level of the game, but this year more than ever there is a sense that, finally, his powers are waning (he *only* has 26 goals, bless him). Even though there was little sign of decline when he arrived, a player approaching their mid thirties was never likely to offer anything more than a narrow timeframe in which he could perform at the very highest level.
And so we see it now, with the player himself still contributing, but in a way that is less instinctive, less ruthless and significantly more taxing on his team than it ever has been before.
That in itself, is fine, but when factoring in the slow deterioration of the Juventus team, such a huge financial outlay in one ageing megastar becomes difficult to vindicate when money could have been spent elsewhere.
In his time in Italy, Juve have gained a couple more Serie A titles, adding them to the seven consecutive league successes they had before Ronaldo's arrival. It has been far from disastrous, yet it's difficult to argue the club are in better shape than they were three years ago.
As another Champions League season splutters to a disappointing conclusion, this time it is set against the backdrop of the team struggling to keep grip of their league crown, trailing both Milan clubs in the table.
People are right to question whether Juve lost sight of the bigger picture.
And so, what next for Ronaldo? Already, reports have suggested Juve may seek to sell him in the summer, freeing up funds for wider squad improvements. Given his knack of pulling off the unexpected, it would be remiss of anyone to assume this - the image of him crouching down, watching on as Porto players wheel away in celebration - is the end of Ronaldo's Champions League story.
Even at his age, few would back against him returning to the very pinnacle of the European game, if only once more. Should he do so, however, it feels increasingly unlikely he will be wearing those famous black and white stripes.