Cristiano Ronaldo has had some legendary nights over the course of his incredible Champions League career. It’s possible, though, that none have been as legendary as the one on Tuesday night.
Atletico are widely regarded as having the best defence in world football. They’re experienced, tactically astute and they had not conceded a goal for over a month. Indeed, they were on a run of five consecutive clean sheets in the Champions League.
Juventus, meanwhile, despite being 18 points clear in Serie A, have not impressed at all as a fluent attacking team all season, regularly grinding out one-goal victories. Friday’s 4-1 win over Udinese – with a shadow outfit – was the first time this term they had scored more than three goals in a Serie A game.
Additionally, with Juve never having beaten Atletico, the Bianconeri were given virtually no hope of progressing – particularly by their home fans, who have spent most of the last three weeks abusing coach Massimiliano Allegri for his defensive tactics.
But it is when the chips are really down that Ronaldo always shows up.
It is the reason why the Juventus board committed €341 million (£294m/$383m) in wages and transfer fee to sign the 34-year-old last summer.
And on Tuesday, he went some way to paying back that money with a sensational hat-trick. First, he outjumped Juanfran from the impressive Federico Bernardeschi’s cross to break the deadlock on 27 minutes. He then netted with another trademark header just after half time, bulleting home from a Cancelo centre despite Jan Oblak almost clawing the ball back.
And, finally, with just minutes remaining, he was handed the chance to complete one of the Champions League’s great comebacks from the penalty spot when Bernardeschi was tripped. Ronaldo never misses from 12 yards in these situations – just ask Juventus after his last-gasp winner for Real Madrid last year – and he made no mistake here.
Ronaldo is already the greatest player in Champions League history. He is – by some distance – the top-scorer in the competition’s history with 127 goals and he has won the most Champions League titles (five) since the tournament was rebranded in 1992.
But it is his ability to produce when it really matters that makes him so special.
“That’s why Juve signed me and I tried to do my best job,” Ronaldo enthused at full time.
“It was a very difficult team to play but we showed that we were a very big team. It was a magical night. ”
And it was a magical night not just for Ronaldo, but for Allegri also. The coach had been a dead man walking lately, but he produced a tactical masterclass. He switched to three at the back, deploying Emre Can as a second defensive playmaker alongside Leonardo Bonucci.
The German international had been a big disappointment since arriving on an expensive free transfer from Liverpool, but he was immense against Atletico, breaking up numerous counters before launching attacks.
Allegri also unleashed Bernardeschi alongside Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic in attack – dropping Paulo Dybala. Bernardeschi assisted the first goal, won the penalty for the third and was a thorn in Atletico’s side throughout. As was left-back Leonardo Spinazzola, making his Champions League debut due to the absences of Alex Sandro and Mattia De Sciglio. He showed no fear in taking the game to Atletico from the first whistle.
It was a deeply disappointing night for Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid, though, who barely created a chance all game as they faced wave after wave of Bianconeri attacks. Their dream of playing the Champions League final in their own stadium is now over.
Juventus’s Champions League dream, though, goes on. In black and white there were heroes everywhere, but one hero stood out head and shoulders above the rest (quite literally for two of his goals) and that was the Champions League’s greatest player ever, Cristiano Ronaldo.