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Cristiano Ronaldo’s Last Best Chance

Portugal are underdogs in the Euro final, but CR7 won’t go quietly

Musto Design
Musto Design

If you flip a coin enough times, it’s going to land on tails 50 times in a row. If you watch enough soccer, you’ll see Cristiano Ronaldo miss 20 shots in a row.

The 31-year-old led all of Europe this season with 227 shots. The next closest player was Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuaín with 182. Conversion rates — the percentage of shots that become goals — typically stay consistent over time, which creates some obvious logic: The best way to score a goal is to shoot. And at this stage in his career, Ronaldo is going to shoot more than anyone else. Hitting the target is a matter of when, not if.

Remember this?

Two games into the Euros group stage, and Portugal had only two points. Ronaldo had whiffed on a breakaway against Iceland, missed that penalty against Austria, and failed to convert 18 other attempts on goal. The best player at the tournament looked like he had his cleats on the wrong feet, and his team was just a loss away from being eliminated before the knockout stage.

Three weeks later, Portugal are in the final, and Ronaldo is still better than everyone else. Of course, we should’ve seen this coming.

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We’re a long way from the kid who arrived at Manchester United in 2003 with bad hair, saplings for legs, and a suitcase full of unnecessary stepovers. Once he got a haircut, grew some tree trunks, and lightened his dribbling luggage, Ronaldo became the best winger in the world — and, with apologies to George Best, probably the best one we’ve ever seen. But beating a defender down the line and cutting in a cross still leaves too much up to chance. So, once he arrived at Real Madrid in 2009, Ronaldo transitioned into a hybrid: a striker playing on the wing. The change saw him reach the peak of his powers, as all of his movements from the outside were directed straight at goal — and once he got going, no one could stop him. Ronaldo could still dribble past anyone, but now he was also getting on the end of through balls and popping up to finish off counterattacks in the box. In his first three years in the Spanish capital, he averaged over two completed dribbles per game and also scored 112 league goals.

If Ronaldo optimized his effectiveness by shifting along the positional spectrum to somewhere between winger and striker, he’s been able to maintain it by finally morphing into a pure striker. Now, for both Madrid and Portugal, he functions as one of the endpoints of the team’s attack. He rarely carries the ball at his feet anymore, and when he gets it, he’s usually in a position to put a shot on goal. At the Euros, he’s dribbled past only three players, but he’s taken 19 more shots (45) than anybody else. After those first two games, he’s scored three goals, and is second in expected goals (3.511) behind France’s Antoine Griezmann (3.975). So much in a seven-game soccer tournament comes down to chance, but it’s almost as if Ronaldo has taken enough shots to drown out all the noise. The coin is coming up heads now.

At the club level, every time Ronaldo’s team loses, it seems like a brief victory against gravity. But with Portugal this summer — from the early finishing struggles to the extra-time matches against Croatia and Poland — there’s been an uncertainty surrounding Ronaldo that we rarely get to see. In a tournament that doesn’t involve Lionel Messi, it’s weird to think of Ronaldo — Madeira’s bulging Christ the Redeemer — as an underdog, but the abbreviated nature of international soccer forces teams into weird situations. Despite not winning a game in regulation until the semifinals, Portugal have played well throughout the tournament, dominating the chance-creation battle in the majority of their games and showing an ability to shape-shift styles from game to game. But France are the hosts, they came into the tournament as the most talented team, and Thursday’s win against Germany confirmed that, yes, Paul Pogba and Co. can do it against a team other than Iceland, too.

Ronaldo is getting older. He’s won all the trophies with Madrid, but he’s still empty-handed when playing for his country, and there’s a good chance this is his last final with Portugal. Winning on Sunday won’t turn him into the best player of all time. (Real quick: These tournaments occur too infrequently and over too few games for them to really matter for a player’s legacy. Messi would have multiple international trophies if Higuaín had finished a couple of clear-cut chances.) But these games seem to matter to Ronaldo in a way that breaks through his lab-manicured veneer. Just watch him convince João Moutinho that he needs to take a penalty against Poland. And then look at him teeter toward a psychotic break during the shootout:

Ronaldo often seemed oppressed by his Portugal teammates. Occasionally they’d negate an incredible one-man goal against the defending world champs by heading a ball that was already going in. Now, though, in his reduced (or distilled) form, he’s reliant on those teammates to at least get him the ball in spots where he can do his damage. He’s been — and still is — their best player by far, but he’s integrated into the team in a way that he hasn’t been in the past.

Come Sunday, France will likely dominate possession, but with the hosts employing what will likely be an attacking-oriented starting 11, there should be opportunities on the counterattack for Portugal. When a defense gets stretched, Ronaldo is still its scariest nightmare, so expect him to get his chances against France. We don’t know if Portugal’s going to win, or if Ronaldo’s going to score, but we do know one thing: If he gets a chance, he’s going to shoot.