Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly one of the greatest soccer players in the history of the game. But in the Champions League Round of 16, the Portuguese icon faces one his greatest ever challenges: rescuing Juventus from a relatively early exit from this season's competition.
Juve's Champions League history
This certainly wasn't the plan when The Old Lady of Turin committed over €300 million in transfer fee and wages to prise Ronaldo from Real Madrid last summer. Juventus, while totally dominant in Serie A in recent times, have a relatively modest record in Europe’s top club competition. They were last champions of Europe back in 1995/96, when Marcelo Lippi steered his side to a penalty shoot-out win over Ajax in the final in Rome.
Juve may have been runners-up in two of the last four seasons, but they also went out at the round of 16 stage in 2015/16, and the group stage in 2013/14.
The purchase of Ronaldo was supposed to put an end to this inconsistency and push them to the ultimate prize.
The Champions League’s all-time top scorer will likely have to put in a 10 out of 10 performance against his former cross-city rivals Atletico Madrid if that is to happen this season.
Are the odds stacked against them?
Juventus’ odds of qualifying for the quarter-finals are 4.10, while Atleti are priced at 1.27. In percentage terms, this means Diego Simeone’s team are given a 76.4 percent chance of going through on March 12. The Old Lady will have rarely been so up against it.
The Italian champions are so unfancied to progress as they lost 2-0 in Madrid. It’s a surprisingly rare score line from the first leg of Champions League knock-out ties – just nine of the 210 ties in the previous 15 seasons have seen the first match end 2-0 to the home side.
The bad news for Juve fans looking for omens is that their side have been on the wrong end of it twice before. In 2006 they lost at Arsenal before drawing 0-0 in Turin, and in 2013 they lost 2-0 at Bayern Munich then went down by the same score line in the second leg.
The side playing at home in the second leg after losing 2-0 away has only gone through in three of the nine most recent examples. It wasn’t surprising to see Manchester United and Real Madrid turn around 2-0 defeats against Olympiakos and Wolfsburg respectively either. Juventus have to hope they can emulate the Barcelona side of 2013, who lost 2-0 at AC Milan before winning 4-0 on home turf.
However, Simeone’s incredibly well drilled team will be a very difficult nut to crack. They have won two first legs at home in recent years – winning 1-0 against Bayern in 2016 and Leicester in 2017 – and they reached the next stage both times.
So there’s a tremendous amount of weight on Ronaldo’s shoulders going into this one, but can he deliver?
Ronaldo's performance so far
In October 2018, I penned an article titled ‘How Many Goals Is Cristiano Ronaldo Worth To Juventus?’. It concluded by suggesting Ronaldo should get close to 30 Serie A goals, and that certainly looks on the cards. By scoring 19 goals in his first 25 matches, he has averaged 0.76 per game, and doing so over the remaining 13 matches would see him end on 29 goals this season.
Ronaldo’s rate equates to 0.79 per 90 minutes, which is below his Real Madrid form in La Liga last season (1.02 goals per 90) but above the scoring rate of Gonzalo Higuain (0.51), the man he essentially usurped in Turin. It hasn’t been at the expense of the team’s performance either; while Juventus’ goals per game record has dipped by six percent from last season, their expected goals per game has increased by 24 percent.
It hasn’t really happened for Ronaldo in the black and white stripes in the Champions League though.
He was sent off inside half an hour in the first group game against Valencia, missed the next match through suspension, and has scored once in the five subsequent games. By this point last season, the Portuguese superstar had scored 11 European goals for Real Madrid, which is two more than the whole Juventus side has managed in 2018/19.
It’s not through a lack of trying. Ronaldo’s shots per 90 minutes rate in the Champions League has increased from 6.3 last season to 6.6 in this campaign. That raw statistic ignores a vitally important fact, though: his quality of chance has decreased.
While Ronaldo’s shot rate has gone up, the number of shots per 90 he has taken from outside the penalty area has more than doubled. Juventus’ number seven has taken 52 percent of his shots from inside the box in Europe this season, but that figure was 79 percent in his final season with Real. He has had just one clear-cut chance in the Champions League in 2018/19, and he missed it.
Can the soccer star save Juventus' UCL hopes?
It’s certainly not impossible Ronaldo could turn the tide in Juventus’ favour in the second leg. Elite level attacking players are always capable of wrestling back control of any tie. He’s also yet to score a direct free-kick for the Italian side in the league or Europe, despite having a total of 20 attempts, so based on average conversion rates he’s perhaps due to hammer one home.
However, Atleti are red hot favourites to progress, and deservedly so. Ronaldo may have matched expectations in Serie A, but with Juventus having won the league for the last seven seasons, it’s not as if they particularly needed his help there. The Champions League top scorer was brought in to power The Old Lady to a continental triumph, and right now it looks at least 12 months away from being a realistic possibility.
Statistics correct as of 25th February 2019.