This was Operation Cristiano Ronaldo in all its glory. Without the Champions League trophy since 1996, Juventus turned to the man who caused them so much heartache, a man who is never far away from the trophy having lifted it for the past three seasons consecutively.
Just look at Real Madrid without him. Stunned by Ajax. As for Juventus, they are profiting immensely. Having fallen flat in Madrid in the first leg, there was never a worry their main man would miss the mark again.
There was VAR drama. Goal-line technology was called into action and the final nail in the coffin came from the penalty spot. Then came the cojones celebration Diego Simeone produced with such enthusiasm come full-time in Madrid. How the tables turned in Turin. For boss Massimiliano Allegri, this was the plan all along from the first whistle of the first leg.
“The lads put in a great performance. They had technique, precision, aggression and it’s what we had planned for the first leg, but I thought about it and made some changes. We didn’t spread the play enough,” he told Sky Italia. “Everyone had been waiting for so long for this game, there was the possibility of a neurotic performance, so I told the lads to stay calm and keep their balance, otherwise we’d run a big risk. It’s really satisfying for the fans, the club, the players themselves, as they know that they are a great team. Now we’ll focus on Serie A, getting the points we need to reach the finish line, and then think about the Champions League.”
Atletico manager Simeone, for his part, admitted they had lost because Juventus were the better team on the night — helped by ‘the best player in the world’. He told Sky Italia: “I have to congratulate Juve, because they attacked very well. They did better and deserved the victory. It’s true, we made mistakes too, but they did better tactically and on the second balls. Cristiano Ronaldo is the best in the world, he can put in these performances on big nights.
He will have seen how I did it [the cojones celebration] at the Wanda Metropolitano and, like me, was trying to show his character.” Juventus started like a squad possessed. The club’s ultras, housed in their Curva Sud stand behind the goal they attacked in the first half, cancelled their planned protest to ensure a sell-out for the visit of Atletico. A cacophony of noise every time Juventus had the ball. A chorus of boos with every touch. It was almost the dream start.
The home support knew how important an early goal would be and 30 seconds in a jinking run from Blaise Matuidi saw him fizz in a low cross, only for Mario Mandzukic to see his effort deflected away. It was a sign of things to come and three minutes later Juventus thought they had cracked Atletico - but VAR begged to differ. Ronaldo stretched to win a loose ball in a 50/50 with Jan Oblak, it squeezed free and Giorgio Chiellini, making his 500th appearance for Juventus, converted.
There was no on-screen review but the decision was made. No goal. The comeback, for the time being, was still to get going. Atletico thought the hard work was done in the first leg. Sitting deep and allowing Juventus to attack them presented no real danger initially with Oblak a passenger for large spells while the Italians huffed and puffed; it all soon unravelled.
Then it came, Juanfran exposed and Ronaldo struck. The Portuguese has had plenty of experience against him but at left back Juanfran looks seriously vulnerable and as Ronaldo put his leap to good use, the ball flew past Oblak and the stadium erupted. Halfway there.
Ronaldo roared to the crowd to keep up the atmosphere. There was never any worry that Atletico could silence this lot. Federico Bernadeschi, selected to start ahead of Paulo Dybala, enjoyed one of his finer performances in the black and white shirt in recent memory as he proved a constant menace. So high was the attacker’s confidence, he almost levelled the tie with a spectacular overhead kick only to see his clean connection send the ball narrowly over.
Juventus set the pace, this was their home and their rules, after all. But how Alvaro Morata missed a free header no more than six yards out with seconds left on the clock will leave him and his team-mates in bewilderment long after the final whistle. The ball came in from the right from Koke and Morata found a rare section of space between Chiellini and Joao Cancelo but butchered his header to the frustrations of his manager who was left apoplectic in his technical area.
The interval did Juventus no harm, they emerged rampant once more, starting with far more purpose. Then one became two as Ronaldo again put his head to good use, connecting with a wicked delivery by Cancelo wide on the right. Oblak got a firm hand to it from close range but Kuipers looked at his watch and signalled that the ball had indeed crossed the line. Make it 24 in 32 against Atletico.
Juventus lost the bite in their attack soon after as Atletico settled. The tie was level, the hard work had largely been done but Massimiliano Allegri’s men were going for the jugular. They wanted this to turn into a bloodbath. Paulo Dybala came on, as did 19-year-old striker Moise Kean and the latter could have sealed it moments before Ronaldo did. The Italian had time, perhaps too much time, to think about where the ball was going. He kept his head down and drilled inches wide, but still wide.
Then came the drama. Bernandeschi weaved his way into the box, was hauled down and the referee needed no time to think. Certain penalty. The look on Simeone’s face told the story. His side’s dream was, once again, ruined by a certain Portuguese. This was a night written for Ronaldo.
A deep breathe out, his cheeks moving as fast as his manager’s feet on the touchline and he converted as he has done so many times over the years.