Cristiano Ronaldo’s waning greatness takes center stage in Manchester United’s Champions League exit

The biggest game of the season, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo would go down in history. The first time in over a decade he has played 90 minutes of Champions League football and not registered a shot. It is the first time in more than a decade that he will end a season without a club trophy. More landmarks for this historical summary.

It will take the distant perspective of history to confidently put Ronaldo in his place among football’s pantheon of greats, but tonight it looked like most of the key facets of his CV had been decided. Yes, the goalscoring volume will swell and there may still be a few more games when he looks back on the years, like he did against Tottenham on Saturday. He shouldn’t be seen as a footballing force in the here and now, but it’s now painfully obvious that his true greatness lies in the past.

Tonight, he did everything he could to drag her into the present. Ronaldo wasn’t even United’s worst player. Especially at the start, he played with strength and intensity. One moment he could drift to the left to combine with Jadon Sancho, the next he would be on the right flank, freeing Anthony Elanga to move around in the box. If Atletico Madrid were to clog the penalty area, they would do everything they could to get them out of there.

In that impressive first third of the game, so easily forgotten in the quagmire that followed, United and Ronaldo were coasting, with quick interaction and sparkling moves down the flank. Then came the setback: a defensive line too easily played, Harry Maguire rushing into no man’s land, Diogo Dalot trying to score three players at once. Renan Lodi struck and with it United’s sense of stability and any belief in the plan they applied to in relatively impressive fashion.

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It’s not about Ronaldo. Nor is it entirely up to him that when their chips were down United did what they and Juventus before them did in this kind of game they hit and hoped in the general direction of the bigger goalscorer recognized by FIFA in history. Surrounded on the right by the line in the 66th minute, Bruno Fernandes, seemingly so inhibited by his compatriot in the colors of Manchester United and Portugal, launched a desperate cross into the box in the hope that someone was there.

Alex Telles was pumping ball after ball in his general direction too. As time went on, it seemed like that was all this garishly talented team could think of to do: trust in Ronaldo’s overwhelming storytelling powers. He would bail them out in the round of 16 like he did in the group stages, like he did for Juventus with that spectacular bicycle kick against that side.

It did not work.

Cristiano Ronaldo throws in against Atletico Madrid


The main statistic was the first European game without a shot in 3,969 days, since a draw with Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Ronaldo didn’t even come close. He didn’t even touch the box. That in itself breaks a six-and-a-half-year streak in this competition dating back to a group stage game against PSG.

Atletico Madrid played him fearlessly, something for a side that suffered so much at their feet. After a shaky start, Jan Oblak was imperious under those desperate crosses. Every duel José Maria Gimenez fought, he won. Maguire didn’t do badly either to block Ronaldo from set pieces.

Diego Simeone and his players will surely never forget the many devastating blows that Ronaldo inflicted on them, in this competition and beyond. But while all the pre-match talk was about the history between these two, Atletico stayed here and now. Over the course of 180 minutes, they limited him to two speculative shots from outside the box and one touch inside.

Atleti may have been Ronaldo’s big whip in this competition, but they could still take solace in the fact that they ended his career there. Almost every summer now brings uncertainty over the 37-year-old and his future. The facts, however, are these. Manchester United are out of the Champions League and it will take a significant change in trajectory for them to get back there in the second year of their contract. Arsenal have the games in hand to come out on top, even after losing at the weekend Tottenham’s chances of overtaking the Gunners are comparable to those of the Red Devils.

Does Ronaldo like the Europa League? He should. Thursday nights are great fun and banging music. Would another team be inclined to let him extend his records in this competition? Paris Saint-Germain are perhaps the only club as caught up in potential stories as Old Trafford and there’s nothing better than uniting Lionel Messi and Ronaldo for one last shot at glory.

But that’s the kind of territory we find ourselves in now. The beginning of the end may well have happened some time ago. As far as we know, the end of Ronaldo and the Champions League just happened.