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Cristiano Ronaldo swapping Real for Juventus? Not so fast

Cristiano Ronaldo
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How to watch Ronaldo (and not get bored)

It only takes a moment to win a match. Or a yard of extra space. How, in the minutely choreographed, tightly controlled game that is modern football, do you find that? The greats do it, creating space and time where neither existed.

That's what Ronaldo's goal was about today. Watch him find the space in the crowded area, amid the jostling and pushing and man-marking. Just before the corner there are two opponents in front of him. He takes a couple of casual steps, sizing them up; the kick is taken and he moves one way, then the other. In a flash he's lost both markers and found a yard of space ahead of him. That's all he needs; that's where Moutinho's corner finds its way and Ronaldo dives into the header, narrowly missing a defender's boot. But the connect with the ball is true and it rockets into the net.

A couple of minutes later he receives the ball just inside the box. There are two defenders ahead of him; again, the slightest of movements - he drags the ball back and sideways - takes them out of the equation, but the shot is just wide.

Ronaldo puts Portugal ahead with a brave, diving header.

A Ronaldo-watching brief during a match can be a fruitless and frustrating exercise, unless you're okay with his gestures, his arms spread wide, his frequent tumbles and his general air of how the world owes him a goal. Or has let him down. He often doesn't do anything; that is anyway the preserve of great players, they don't need to be in constant motion, or involved in the play at all times. But Ronaldo has now taken it to another level. Gone are the lung-busting runs down the wing; gone, too, the endless step-overs. Now it's all about one shot, one pass, one flick - one touch that can change the direction of play, catch a defence flat-footed.

All this despite the close attention of Medhi Benatia, who eventually received a yellow card for his excessive tackling. And despite the trolling of the Morocco fans who chanted Messi's name. They perhaps don't know that Ronaldo has long used any Messi reference to up his own game.


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You could watch him hang. Ronaldo hangs in the air the way maybe Salah sprints or de Gea dives. It's his thing, made most famous during the last Euros against Wales. There, his goal came from a header for which, it was calculated, he jumped two and a half feet - a total height of 8 feet 7 inches - and hung 0.7 seconds in the air. Now 0.7 seconds may not seem like much but time it on your stopwatch. Again, extra time and space; space in the air, leaping higher than his opponents, and time to meet the ball. It's a mix of his thighs, his ankles, and his technique, which has close to 5G force (similar to what astronauts experience) and the aerodynamics of an Olympic high jumper.

He doesn't hang much anymore, sadly, but there was one leap, around the eighth minute, when it seemed even the whistles and jeers from the Moroccan supporters stopped. Which is saying something. I was looking out for this and for once my brain followed the instruction to memorise what it saw. I can still see it: Poise, thrust, leap, hang, head, touch down.

Nor does he sprint much. Not too long ago he was clocked at running 25m in 3.6 seconds. Those legs have gone and today there were only a couple of sprints but to be the defender facing him must have been terrifying. One, in the 27th minute, was a terrific run of around 15 yards but the ball was lost before it reached him and the move broke down.

Ronaldo rises above the rest to score against Wales at Euro 2016.
Ronaldo rises above the rest to score against Wales at Euro 2016.

Instead, he passes. Twenty-six of them today, of which one, to Goncalo Guedes around the 38th minute was a flash of beauty: receiving the ball from Guedes just outside the box, a swivel and the deftest of volleyed touches to Guedes, who had followed through on his run.

If nothing else, watch him defend. Yes, he does that too, and is especially handy at corners where - just as when attacking them - he brings his heading skill into play and is often the first person to the ball. I counted three headed clearances from Moroccan set-pieces, all three fairly decisive, the kind you would expect from a top defender.

Morocco and Portugal are separated by a stretch of the Mediterranean, probably no more than 400 km apart from Casablanca to Faro. Morocco came into this match as the underdogs but played with spirit, flair and, when necessary, some borderline tackling. You might even say they were the better side overall. Or that their midfielder Noureddine Amrabat was more potent down the right flank than the world's best player, who shook his hand and patted his back just before kickoff as they stood on either side of the halfway line. But Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't need a match, he needs a moment. That's what he got, and that's what he took.

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