The striker’s best performance for Juve in the Champions League embodied the club’s ‘until the end’ motto
The Juventus motto is “fino alla fine” – in other words, until the end. On Tuesday evening the men’s team proved these words are not empty but alive. Juve aspire to be a team who never give up, a team who burn with an indefatigable spirit, and this week it was there for all to see.
They showed it against Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season, when they came back from a 3-0 first-leg deficit to level the tie at the Bernabéu, an incredible comeback that ended in disappointment when a late Cristiano Ronaldo penalty decided it in Real’s favour. This year it was a different Madrid club, Atlético, a 2-0 deficit and Ronaldo – now wearing Juve’s famous black and white – decided matters from the spot again.
I had tickets to Tuesday’s game but the women’s team had a match in Milan on Wednesday, the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final, and travelled the day before, so instead of being at the stadium we watched it together at the team hotel. It was hugely inspiring. We share the same shirt and philosophy, and the timing was perfect for what is a crucial month towards the end of the season. The following night, motivated by the performance of the men’s team, we went a goal down and came back to win 2-1. We are all part of a culture at the club that strives for excellence across the board, with that fino alla fine spirit at the core of our mentality.
I thought it would be tough to come back against Atlético Madrid, primarily because the men have not been tested that much this season, especially in Serie A, where they are 18 points ahead. When they have been truly pushed in the Champions League, they have lost: at home to Manchester United in the group stage and at the Wanda Metropolitano against a tough, stubborn Atlético side known for their exceptional defence. Many doubted the team’s ability to come back but that spirit is built into the side and they found a way from the first minute to put Atlético under waves of pressure.
Last summer the men’s team moved to a new training ground at Continassa while we work at their old one, so I have not been able to see evidence of Ronaldo’s legendary commitment with my own eyes, but I know his dedication has continued since he moved to Turin. He asks a lot of questions and always wants to know why he’s doing what he’s doing. His mentality, work ethic and the drive that have powered him towards greatness inspire all of us individually and collectively. The recipe for perfection starts with hard work.
Until this week I don’t think he had delivered a truly outstanding performance for Juve in the Champions League. I went to that game against United, when he scored a wonderful volley, but his all-round play was not amazing. On Tuesday he stood out. There were other players who put in exceptional performances too: Miralem Pjanic, who often seems to go under the radar, Leonardo Spinazzola, who got up and down the left and put some good crosses in, and Federico Bernardeschi, who created Ronaldo’s first goal and won the decisive penalty.
The buildup to the penalty demonstrated the determination and drive of the team. For Bernardeschi to have that energy at that point, to have the awareness and ability to cut inside, get into the box and force a desperate defender into a rash shove, was the stuff of champions. A week ago I don’t think many people would have fancied Juventus as potential winners of the Champions League but after that performance and with Ronaldo in great form they will certainly be feared.
I think the men can go on to win it. The tournament is pretty open, with Real Madrid already out, but with the best player in the world in the Juventus side I can see them getting to another final. There is something that happens when you win in the manner they did on Tuesday. There’s a sort of invincibility that is created within the team. That confidence will stand them in good stead against anyone.
Ronaldo celebrated his winning penalty by mockingly recreating Diego Simeone’s “cojones” gesture from the first leg, which was great entertainment, and I don’t think the Argentinian will be boasting about his team’s balls for a while. I was surprised by Atlético’s lack of ambition. They never showed any desire to win the game, when one away goal would almost certainly have decided the tie in their favour. Álvaro Morata was isolated and Antoine Griezmann looked as if he didn’t want to be there. I was shocked by how passive they were. This was a club that has reached two of the past five finals.
It was interesting that 24 hours after Ronaldo produced a statement performance Lionel Messi scored twice and created two more as Barcelona beat Lyon 5-1.
I think comparisons between the two players are futile at this stage. I have been learning a lot about Italian history in my spare time and recently visited Florence and Rome, where I saw the incredible Renaissance artwork of Michelangelo and Da Vinci. It made me realise that having two greats in the same field at the same time can help produce greater achievement. Comparing Ronaldo and Messi is similar to comparing those two magnificent artists, who created their masterpieces in the same period.
You can make your own mind up about which is the greater player, and there are strong arguments for both, but what Ronaldo has proved beyond doubt, time and again, is that when it really, really matters, in the biggest games of all, he is the difference.