Another big European night, another Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick. Just two weeks after putting three past Bayern Munich, the Portuguese man repeated the trick against Atletico Madrid in even more impressive fashion.
It was the second time he helped himself to a hat-trick against Los Rojiblancos’ famously stingy defense this season, having previously done so at the Vicente Calderon in a LaLiga clash in November.
It only took 10 minutes for Real Madrid’s all-time leading goalscorer to get his name on the scoreboard on Tuesday with an emphatic header.
Then in the 73rd minute, the 32-year-old showed great patience and awareness to wait for an errant ball to drop to a comfortable height before nearly busting a hole in Jan Oblak’s net.
The hat-trick goal came in the 86th minute, with the reigning Ballon d’Or winner using his intelligent movement to forge an acre of space for himself inside the penalty box, enabling him to pick his spot and slot home.
It was an exceptional display of penalty box finishing that underlines why football writers and commentators should henceforth be banned from describing Ronaldo as a winger.
He’s no longer a winger, but a blue-chip centre-forward.
A Tentative Evolution
Not that we should be surprised.
We’ve seen Ronaldo’s transformation coming for a while, like an approaching storm that signals its intent by dropping a few intermittent showers before eventually unleashing a full torrential downpour.
The Madeira-born man has been casting furtive glances towards the penalty box for a few years, but he has now well and truly completed the transition – and the goals are raining down.
It was Carlo Ancelotti who first made the decision to field him as a centre-forward at the start of the 2013/14 season.
But the former Manchester United prodigy didn’t overly enjoy the experiment, and the Italian tactician wisely saw the merits of playing his best player in the position in which he felt most comfortable.
And so Ronaldo was shifted back to the role in which he made his name, starting on the left side of a trident but cutting inside at will.
He would go on to score a record 17 goals in that UEFA Champions League campaign as Real Madrid won La Decima.
But time and tide wait for no man, and Ronaldo’s trademark speed and dribbling ability inevitably began to wane.
It took him some time to come to terms with his creeping physical limitations, and understandably so.
It’s not easy for a player who is accustomed to getting fans out of their seats every few minutes to accept only being able to do so three or four times over 90 minutes – even if those instances are goals or attempts at goal.
For that reason, many Madridistas were open to their club selling Ronaldo last summer in order to rebuild their attack.
Their concern wasn’t so much over his ability to succeed as a centre-forward in pure footballing terms, but rather whether he had the mentality required to accept being isolated from the action for long stretches.
But after some initial reticence, the Los Blancos veteran has come to embrace his new reality, and his team are richer for it.
Less Dominant, More Decisive
Against Atletico, Ronaldo had fewer touches than any of his outfield teammates bar Karim Benzema (who was substituted in the 76th minute) – but scored thrice.
He also plundered five goals over the two quarter-final legs versus Bayern while being similarly isolated from much of the build-up play.
Don’t expect Ronaldo to admit it out loud, but there are players in Real’s starting line-up, and even their bench, who are better dribblers, tricksters and passers of the ball.
But he now appears to be content with “simply” being his team’s best finisher.
A large amount of credit for that must go to Zinedine Zidane.
In his post-match press conference, Zidane partially attributed his talisman’s big-game goalscoring form to the fact that he was rested during various points of the season.
The French legend has used all of his charm to convince Ronaldo that sitting out games won’t serve to undermine his influence, but will rather ensure that he is in tip-top shape when his team plays on the biggest of stages.
Los Blancos don’t always need to depend on their star man to score against LaLiga’s lesser lights, as they possess plenty of other firepower in the Benzemas, Alvaro Moratas and Iscos of this world.
What they really need is for the Euro 2016 champion to bang in the goals against the toughest opponents in high-stakes games.
And boy, has he delivered on that front.
The Portugal captain’s hat-trick at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was only the fourth ever scored in a Champions League semi-final, and makes him the first player to bag consecutive hat-tricks in the knockout stages of the competition.
He only managed two goals in the group stages, but has eight and counting in the knockout phase.
Get Used To It
Some might say Ronaldo’s shift to a No. 9 role is little more than a brief late-career transformation, designed to soften the blow of a great career drawing to a reluctant close.
But make no mistake – CR7’s career may be winding down, but the CR9 avatar is only just beginning.
The king is dead, long live the king.