CARDIFF, June 3 (Reuters) - We should have known really shouldn’t we? Cristiano Ronaldo made all the difference yet again with two goals to help Real Madrid secure a third Champions League title in four years as they crushed Juventus 4-1 in Saturday’s final.
For all the talk of tactics, the threat posed by the Italian champions, the focus on Ronaldo’s Welsh team mate Gareth Bale, the romantic notion of Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon finally winning a Champions League medal and everything else that had occupied minds and column inches, Ronaldo won the trophy again.
Of course, Real’s win was about much more than the contributions of their Portugal forward.
When Juventus enjoyed spells of pressure in the first half, they largely held firm. After Mario Mandzukic scored an incredible first-half equaliser with an audacious overhead kick, Real didn’t let the Italians get away from them.
Whatever French coach Zinedine Zidane told his Real players at halftime succeeded in producing a display of dominance that once Brazilian Casemiro had put them 2-1 up on the hour never looked in danger of ending in anything other than celebrations.
But it was impossible to ignore Ronaldo as his team mate Toni Kroos was quick to point out.
“Everybody knows that Cristiano is very important. As a team we played very well in the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and today, but you need a guy to score the goals and he did it again,” said the Germany international.
Goals in each half from Ronaldo made him the first player to score in three finals in the Champions League era, adding to his strikes in the 2008 and 2014 showpieces for Manchester United and Real respectively.
His second goal on Saturday, to make it 3-1 in the 64th minute, put the game beyond Juves and made Ronaldo top scorer in this season’s Champions League with 12 goals -- one more than Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who he is constantly compared to.
It also happened to be Ronaldo’s 600th career goal for club and country.
The former Benfica and United winger-turned-striker turned 32 in February but far from fading he is as dangerous as ever -- perhaps, in some ways, even more effective than in his younger days.
In the past 12 months Ronaldo has won two Champions League titles, the European Championship with Portugal, claimed a Spanish league title and the World Club Cup and on an individual level been awarded the Ballon D‘or and FIFA’s ‘Best’ award.
He no longer rips defences apart with devastating acceleration down the flanks or on the break, but he has more than compensated for the loss of his once electrifying speed by adding the positional sense, instinct and killer touch that all truly great strikers possess.
And he is one of the great strikers, how else to describe someone who has scored more than 40 goals in each of his last seven seasons?
His first goal at the Principality Stadium to put Real ahead in the 20th minute against Juve illustrated that perfectly as he had the wit to lay the ball off to Dani Carvajal on his right and then the smartness to hold, wait for the cut-back pass and then use his technique to bury the ball in the bottom corner.
For his second goal, Ronaldo read and anticipated Luka Modric’s burst to the byline, timed his run perfectly and met the Croatian’s low cross with a deft touch that lifted the ball over the helpless Buffon.
Class, quality and the killer touch -- all when it matters most. Would anyone bet against him doing it all again next year? (Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)