By Aidan Elder | Chief Sports Writer
The ‘not a big game player’ label is harder to shake off than the suspicion Howard Webb is on the Old Trafford payroll. You know you’ve made it when people start accusing you of ‘not turning up for the big occasion’. And give yourself an extra-large pat on the back if you’re regularly told you ‘go missing when the pressure’s on’. When it comes to the big stage, you need big performances and, as plenty of people are willing to tell you, too often Cristiano Ronaldo is left standing in the wings.
It’s an accusation the perfectly preened one seems to get hurled at him more than most. Roy of the Rovers and maybe Pele are about the only players to have consistently met the vague criteria of ‘turning up on the big occasion’ throughout their careers.
The problem has something to do with the definition of what a ‘big game’ is. For example, in the last couple of years the meeting Manchester City and Manchester United has been one of the most significant games in the season. But prior to that, it was about as important as Piers Morgan’s views on anything.
With Sky Sports hyping up virtually every match they’ve got rights to, everything can feel like it has immense repercussions which our tiny minds while only be able to comprehend many years from now. Although it felt like the future of the universe depended on it at the time, maybe the Carling Cup Quarter Final against Arsenal in November 2004 wasn’t actually a big occasion. There are de facto big games such as crunch league games, Champions League games and key international matches, but there are also games whose importance only becomes clear afterwards. The definition of ‘big game’ is a moving set of goalposts.
Then there’s an issue about what qualifies as ‘turning up.’ Generally a goal will quieten the doubters, but often it won’t. On the flip side, there are countless examples of great performances that weren’t rewarded with the validation of goal. When games are summed up in brief highlights packages or Twitter-style match summaries, the actual contribution of non-scoring players is always going to be understated.
Another factor is we’re all just human. If we’ve got a certain point of view, we tend to focus in on evidence that backs us up at the expense of anything that contradicts it. It’s called Confirmation Bias and it’s more than just the normal psycho -babble. It informs a large part of what we think about anything. We’re just a stubborn bunch. Once we get a notion in our heads, it’s hard to get it out of there. If you think Ronaldo is a big-game bottler, then the chances are you’ll continue to think he’s a big-game bottler well into the future, no matter what he does.
In a doomed attempt to change your mind, here’s five games in which Ronaldo definitely stepped up to the plate.
Arsenal v Manchester United – Champions League semi-final 2009
It looked like being one of those all-English Champions League ties that could have gone either way, but that cliché was quickly put to bed as a Ronaldo-inspired United tore the Gunners to shreds. Of course the entire United team performed on the night, but Ronaldo’s tireless efforts sealed the deal. His starting and finishing of the move for the brilliant third goal was fantastic and his length of the pitch run showed a work ethic that blied his pretty-boy, show-pony reputation.
Portugal v Bosnia Herzegovina – Euro 2012 Qualifying Play-off 2011
Portugal were pretty rubbish in their qualifying group for Euro 2012. Now they’re in the semi-finals it feels a bit weird, but the Portuguese were once in serious danger of not making it to Polkraine. It required a play-off against the emerging force of Bosnia-Herzegovina and it had banana-skin written all over it. After a scoreless first leg, a score draw would have done the Golden Lilies from the Balkans, but nerves were settled early on as Ronaldo lashed in a free-kick from distance. When the visitors scored to make it 2-1 and put the game back into the balance, CR7 delivered again , clinically finishing after getting on the end of a through ball to make 3-1. The crazy game ended up 6-2 with Ronaldo’s timely contributions making it far less tricky than it might have been.
Real Madrid v Barcelona – Copa Del Rey Final 2011
In retrospect, Ronaldo’s goal may turn out to be more important for it’s psychological benefit than the value of the trophy. Having been schooled a few times by Guardiola’s Barcelona, Mourinho’s Madrid needed to show they could match Barca at least once. During the 90 minutes, they hung on in there thanks to some good saves from Casillas, and in extra-time, Ronaldo show his predator’s instinct by heading home the winning goal. It got a monkey off the team’s back and help lay the path to this season’s La Liga triumph.
Manchester United v Chelsea – Champions League Final 2008
It was a game in which United chances were few and far between. Edwin van der Sar got the Man of the Match honours for a string of fine saves and his penalty shoot-out heroics, but Ronaldo’s fantastic header put his team in the driving seat. Yes, he missed his penalty in the shoot-out, but with his goal, a misfiring United wouldn’t have got that far to benefit from John Terry’s wobbly standing leg.
Portugal v Netherlands – Euro 2012
One of Ronaldo’s biggest performances came in a game that wasn’t strictly a knock-out game and had no trophy up for grabs. With the Netherlands misfiring, there was the notion floating around that they may yet get it together and beat Portugal by the requisite goals to claim passage to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012. It didn’t happen and by some margin. Ronaldo dominated the Dutch defence and were it not for the sloppy finishing of his team-mates, could have added a few assists to his lovely brace.
You can’t get away from the fact that on some occasions, Ronaldo hasn’t performed to his ability. Whether it’s down to good marking, nerves or a bad hair day, he hasn’t always dominated big games in the way he can. But that’s understandable. Big games are big because they generally feature big teams filled with high quality players. It’s more difficult to dominate and yes, Ronaldo hasn’t always managed it.
But that’s no different from countless others that have gone before him. Zidane, Messi, Maradona, Cryuff and many others all had games when they failed to deliver the type of performances we know they’re capable of. In fact Pele failed to perform on the big occasions so often, he got a contract with Viagra out of it. Ronaldo may not perform against Spain, but that doesn’t mean he never performs on the big occasion.