Ronaldo is still better than everyone else, and Gonzalo Higuaín is … clutch? Here are your winners and losers from the first legs of the Champions League semifinals.
He might not be better than Lionel Messi, but Cristiano Ronaldo is better than the whole Atlético Madrid team put together:
Some more stats: With the three goals against Atlético, Ronaldo became the only player in Champions League history with back-to-back hat tricks in the knockout stage. He has five Champions League hat tricks after turning 30; no one else has more than one. He’s scored more goals in the knockout stage (52) than he has in the group stages (51). And of course: Those 103 goals are the most in Champions League history.
There’s no Play Index for European soccer because Ronaldo is the answer to every query. We all know it by now, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible: The greatest goal scorer in the world — the greatest goal scorer you or I have ever seen — used to play like this:
Today, any remaining stepovers serve as flickering reminders of the past, as Ronaldo’s game — every touch, every run, every opportunity to publicly shame James Rodríguez — is now wholly devoted to putting the ball into the back of the net.
Wingers typically peak around 25, strikers around 27. But as both Messi and Ronaldo push into their 30s, the scope of their dominance has saturated the sport: Both of them have already put together two of the greatest careers of all time — and yet they’re still better than everyone else playing today.
Loser: Proponents of the Clutch Gene
Gonzalo Higuaín scored two goals in a game that mattered. This was not supposed to happen.
After losing Paul Pogba to Manchester United for 110 million euro last summer, Juventus spent 90 million euro on the then-28-year-old Argentine because they wanted to win right now and not rebuild. Heading into yesterday, Higuaín had scored two goals in 24 knockout-stage matches, and now his pair of finishes in a relatively even game will likely be what decides the tie with Monaco and pushes Juve into the Champions League final.
The best strikers miss the most chances because they take the most shots. And the best strikers play for the best teams. Follow that thinking through and you land here: The best strikers are more likely to miss chances in big games than anyone else. Higuaín has scored 91 goals over the past three seasons; it was only a matter of time before he bagged one in a big one.
Winner: Real Madrid’s Ceiling
We’ve been over this already, and it sounds ridiculous to say it about the defending European champs and current La Liga favorites, but this team just isn’t maxing out its potential — or at least, it hadn’t been. They have the most talented roster in the world, but rather than working the ball into the box for high-quality shots, Zinedine Zidane’s club typically resorts to crosses and out-of-the-box shots to produce its goals, leading La Liga in both categories. They’re only fourth in Spain in possession and 16th in Europe. For all the money the club spends, they’re not great at creating dangerous chances or controlling a game.
Then Tuesday happened:
They pummeled one of Europe’s best defenses and left no openings on the other end. Prior to the first leg against Atlético, Real Madrid were still arguably the best team in the world when they were burying opponents under an avalanche of mediocre chances, but if they play like they did against Atlético, no one can touch them.
Loser: The Magic of Diego Simeone
Atlético had been circling this kind of result for a couple of years. Simeone’s achieved incredible things with a club that doesn’t have the same resources as its closest competitors: a La Liga title in 2014 and Champions League final appearances in 2014 and 2016. But even as he’s attempted to turn his team into a proactive defense-first side — more bear trap, less siege mentality — his preferred playing style still always cedes the impetus to the opponent.
When the other side has most of the ball — Real had over 60 percent possession — your margin for error dwindles: If a side is attacking for most of the game, it’s OK if they screw up; they’ll get another chance. But if you’re defending for most of the game, you can’t screw up because then you give up a goal.
Atlético have been able to stay on the positive side of the ledger thanks to some luck but also thanks to a collection of flip-the-switch counter-attackers, a legitimately frightening team-wide devotion to defending, and a real ability to convert set pieces at a high rate. However, it’s always seemed like an approach with an expiration date, both on the field and off: Defending that much and that intensely is exhausting, but because Simeone never has the more talented team against the Real Madrids and Bayern Munichs of the world, he employs a style that cuts down on big chances and brings the game closer to a 50–50 proposition. Which puts a lot of pressure on Atlético’s finishing to provide the edge. Sometimes, though, the talent gap is just too wide for tactics, and if Simeone ever leaves the club for another team with more money — stop grinning, Arsenal fans — a result like Tuesday will explain why.
Winner: Dani Alves
Higuaín got the goals, but neither one happens without Alves turning the Champions League semifinal into a Riverside Park pickup game. Reminder: This dude is a fullback — and he’s making the city of Turin forget about Andrea Pirlo.
Somehow, last summer Barcelona decided they didn’t need Alves anymore, and Juventus, as they did with Pirlo and Pogba and plenty others, picked him up on a free transfer. (We’re at the point where if Juve signs one of your players, it means you shouldn’t have let him go. And if they’re willing to sell to you, you should hang up the phone and lock yourself in a broom closet.) At 33, Alves has been the most creative player in the Champions League. His legs can’t quite handle the “entire right side” position he used to play for Barca, but Juve’s three center backs make up for whatever range he’s lost.
I don’t know how we got here, but if Madrid and Juve see their ties through, the winner of the “Alves vs. Marcelo” über-fullback showdown could end up deciding who’s lifting the trophy on June 3.