Cristiano Ronaldo would be forgiven for averting his gaze briefly towards his past as he makes his way towards his latest league title.
A glance back at Real Madrid, the club where he set standards for a decade, will have shown him that, after a period of painful adjustment, Madrid are learning to live, even to thrive, without the great CR7.
Or, at least, Madrid are finding fresh ways to achieve their targets. When Ronaldo was in his pomp at the Bernabeu, sometimes registering over 40 goals in a single La Liga campaign, they leaned on him to a degree that was sometimes uncomfortably dependent. When he left them for Juventus in the summer of 2018, they missed him enormously.
And, even from their position at the top of La Liga, Madrid can still feel the gap he left. Here’s a telling statistic from the last month of post-shutdown football in the two major leagues of southern Europe.
In the six matches after Real Madrid overtook Barcelona at the summit of La Liga – before last night’s meeting with Villarreal – Madrid scored nine goals. In the same period, over six Serie A matches, Ronaldo individually scored seven and set up another three for Juventus.
Wednesday evening’s see-saw, 3-3 draw with Sassuolo was the first time since Italy’s top division resumed that Ronaldo went a full 90 minutes without a goal.
It meant missing a chance to catch up with Lazio’s Ciro Immobile at the head of the race for the Capocannoniere award, as Serie A’s leading marksman for the season. Ronaldo is on 28 goals in total, Immobile one more.
That duel will be played out, head-to-head, on Monday, when Lazio come to Turin, burdened by regrets about what might have been.
When the fixture was rescheduled in the calendar for mid-July, it was the most anticipated collision of the restart.
At that stage, just a point separated Juve from Lazio at the top of the table. But the Rome club’s energised and convincing challenge has lurched wildly off course since the league resumed.
Within 11 minutes of their first game post-lockdown they were 2-0 up at Atalanta; by the end of it they had lost 3-2, and although Lazio then took maximum points from their next two games, successive defeats to AC Milan, Lecce and Sassuolo all but ended their scudetto ambitions. They drew 0-0 with Udinese on Wednesday to extend their winless run to four matches.
Injuries have hampered Lazio, who last won the Italian title in 2000, and although manager Simone Inzaghi regards a likely top-four finish as a triumph in itself – “this club haven’t qualified for the Champions League for 13 years, and we are three points away from that”, he points out – the momentum generated through a 20-match unbeaten run up until March was abruptly lost when Serie A was suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lazio now trail Juventus by eight points. After Monday’s meeting, they will each have four matches left.
Juventus have dropped points here and there and for all Ronaldo’s form, not least with a dead ball – three of his post-restart goals have come from the penalty spot, another from his first successful direct-free in 41 attempts as a Juve player – there is a creeping suspicion that, rather like the Real Madrid of the later stages of his career there, the instinct to shape a gameplan around the 35-year-old Portuguese can be a double-edged sword.
Juve manager Maurizio Sarri highlighted his team’s over-eagerness to look for passes that would have Ronaldo chasing behind the opposition defence as a weakness in the draw with enterprising Sassuolo.
“Sometimes we look in too much of a hurry to get to the goal within two passes,” Sarri said. “Sometimes you need a series of passing moves to control the tempo better. It meant we gave away possession too much.”
Sarri is just three wins from guaranteeing his first and Juventus’s ninth successive league title, but knows that a Juve he described as “having huge potential but sometimes puzzling” should expect to have their frailties more thoroughly probed in next month’s Champions League than they have been in Serie A.
In the European competition, they must first reverse a 1-0 first leg deficit in their last-16 tie against Lyon. Should they do that, there are potential reunions in prospect for Ronaldo.
The winners of Juve-Lyon will meet either Manchester City or Madrid in the last eight. If Juventus find a way to the semi-finals, they could face Lionel Messi and Barcelona.