MARK DOYLEDeputy Features Editor10 hours ago
CRISTIANO RONALDOJUVENTUSSERIE ACOPPA ITALIAROMANAPOLIJUVENTUS V ROMANAPOLI V JUVENTUSOPINIONFEATURES & OPINIONSThe Juventus forward has scored in seven consecutive Serie A games and the 34-year-old looks determined to win it all in 2020Article continues below
By his own admission, Maurizio Sarri attaches little importance to individual awards.
So, it was interesting to hear the Juventuscoach express his disappointment at Lionel Messi pipping Cristiano Ronaldo to a sixth Ballon d’Or last December.
“It’s really annoying thinking that someone won more than Cristiano,” Sarri admitted.
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If anything, though, the Bianconeri boss should be happy that Messi moved one clear of Ronaldo in the Ballon d’Or rankings.Article continues below
Of course, the Portuguese never takes such snubs well; hence, the petulant no-shows at any awards ceremony which has the temerity to deny him a prize.
However, Ronaldo is never more dangerous than when he’s hurting.
When the Ballon d’Or was handed out to Messi, there was already a huge debate raging in Italyover whether the 34-year-old Ronaldo was finally feeling the effects of the ageing process.
He was struggling with a niggling knee injury and, consequently, struggling for goals, having netted just five times in Serie A.
Since then, though, Ronaldo has scored in seven consecutive games, striking 11 times in total. Real Madrid‘s record goalscorer was also on target in Juve’s Coppa Italia quarter-final win over Roma in midweek.
The Gazzetta dello Sport has heralded the return of “the real Ronaldo” and is now even asking if the European Championship winner is the greatest forward ever to grace Serie A.
It’s a remarkable turnaround given just two months ago the Portugal international was being slated by Fabio Capello for his angry reaction to being substituted by Sarri in Juve’s frustrating scoreless draw with AC Milan in Turin.
And it has to be said that while Ronaldo’s return to form was predictable – he has been silencing doubters his entire career – Sarri has managed what could have been an awkward situation masterfully.
Instead of castigating Ronaldo after the Milan game, he argued Juve instead owed him a debt of gratitude for playing through the pain for so long.
Even now, Sarri played down his role in Ronaldo’s resurgence, saying it is all down to the player’s professionalism and incessant pursuit of perfection.
“I cannot take credit for Ronaldo’s current form,” the Tuscan insisted. “You can only give credit to his mother for creating such a specimen!”
Of course, Ronaldo is primarily responsible for his impressive physique and staggering success, as both are the result of a seemingly insatiable thirst for success.
There is no doubt, though, that he is reaping the benefits of playing under Sarri, who perfectly understands that the advantages of indulging Ronaldo far outweigh the disadvantages.
“We have a champion who sometimes creates a problem for you but solves 100 of them,” he told Sky Sport Italia. “The rest of the team has to revolve around him.”
Sarri is also trying to construct a team around Ronaldo, one that gets the very best out of its undoubted superstar.
The early signs are encouraging in that regard. As we approach the knockout stages of the Champions League, Ronaldo is in the best form of his Juventus career.
Indeed, he is the first Bianconero since David Trezeguet in 2005 to score in seven consecutive league games and few would bet against him extending that run against Napolion Sunday evening.
He is not the only Juve forward playing well, though, with Paulo Dybala having netted 11 times in 26 appearances, after managing just 10 in 42 outings last term.
The Bianconeri very nearly sold the Argentine last summer, with Sarri’s predecessor having repeatedly tried – and failed – to integrate Dybala into a Ronaldo-led attack.
Now, though, the 26-year-old looks sharper and more explosive than he has in at least 18 months.
More importantly, he is finally proving himself capable of playing not only alongside Ronaldo – for whom he has already created three goals – but also as a trequartista in behind the Portuguese and Gonzalo Higuain.
In defence, meanwhile, Matthijs de Ligt is showing signs of finally settling into a defence disrupted by the loss of Giorgio Chiellini to a serious injury at the start of the season (the captain will be back soon).
There are outstanding issues in midfield, though, and there is no denying that while Juve have shown exciting flashes of ‘Sarriball’, most recently in the Coppa Italia rout of Udinese, they remain a work in process.
They have been doing just enough to win in Serie A but European success still looks beyond this side at the moment.
In assessing the recent winners of the Champions League in his column in the Gazzetta earlier this week, legendary coach Arrigo Sacchi pointed out that Juventus have neither the same level of star power that fuelled Real Madrid’s three successive triumphs nor the relentless energy of Liverpool.
“How much would Juventus benefit from the pressing of Klopp’s team, and Ronaldo most of all?” the former AC Milan boss asked.
Still, progress is being made, with Ronaldo’s double against Parma last weekend having moved Juve four points clear of second-placed Inter at the summit of Serie A.
It is the biggest lead we’ve seen so far in an intriguing title race and it feels significant, ominous almost, as if normal service has been resumed.
And as Ivan Zazzaroni wrote in the Corriere dello Sport on Monday, “Normal, in our football, means Juventus winning thanks to Ronaldo.”
There is certainly an air of predictability surrounding these two seemingly perfectly matched winning machines, with Ronaldo clicking into gear just as the Champions League knockout stage appears on the horizon.
He wants that sixth European Cup. And that sixth Ballon d’Or too. It’s up to Inter, Messi and everyone else to try stop him. In this form, it’s not going to be easy