SAMINDA KUNTI / AIPS: The first steps of Cristiano Ronaldo on a Serie A pitch were mundane. He jogged out of the tunnel in a green bib, stretched, caressed the ball for a few moments and stretched again. Yet nothing about it was ordinary at all.
In the oppressive heat of the Chievo suburb and the sun-drenched, bowl-like ground Juventus fans vastly outnumbered their Verona counterparts, who seemingly, afraid of the all-encompassing hysteria clustered in the north stand of the Bentegodi stadium. The masses had come to watch Italian football’s new talisman Ronaldo, both the ultimate narcissist and contemporary super athlete.
The Portuguese co-created the age of the player cult. He has blossomed in it. At Juventus he wants to consolidate his superstardom.
Weeks after his transfer, the amazement and even faint disbelief lives on in Italy. The Portuguese superstar has dominated the news cycle, every detail of his life fascinatingly dissected: his astounding goal-scoring record, his aura and wealth, and what Pele tweets about him.
The Juventus No7 has single-handedly changed the matrix of the Italian top flight which, for the first time, spent more than a billion euro in the transfer market.
Hours before kick-off RonaldoMania gripped the streets of Verona and kids with fathers, and grandfathers, milled around the old, concrete stadium in anticipation of the new season, Serie A, version 7.0.
In truth, they had not come to see the big kick-off, they had not come to watch the mighty Juventus, so dominant in Italian football, either. They simply craved for Ronaldo.
Inside, the cavernous stadium all seats seemed to have imaginary, obstructed views, as the Juventus majority craned their necks, almost in distress as if they’d miss out on the minutiae of the Great Debut
A murmur of excitement filled the ground. Ronaldo walked out, scored thrice in the warm-up, to general approval, and jogged off again. A ball boy tried to high five the Portuguese, but a zealous security guard intervened.
This was supposed to be all about Ronaldo but the obdurate hosts did not oblige. Midway the second half Juventus had become a study in frustration: goals by Mariusz Stepinski and Emanuele Giaccherini had turned the game on its head.
This was no longer the first-half procession, in which the reigning champions, who had enjoyed 91pc possession in the first ten minutes, reduced the season’s curtain raiser to a glorified friendly match.
No pass master
Each and every time Juventus went forward, with their fluid front four phallanx, they caused havoc. The home defense scuttled and Sami Khedira tapped in the opener after three minutes. Ronaldo, the nominal striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, began on the right with Douglas Costa drifting inside. Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado also exchanged positions.
Ronaldo’s first 45 minutes were underwhelming, peripheral at best. He made 15 passes in the first half, the fewest of all Juventus players including goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
Ronaldo’s pass accuracy of 87pc was also the lowest among Juve players. Yet, he was among the most dangerous in the final third. The crowd willed him on. He dragged his shot inches wide, an opportunistic half volley fizzed over the top corner and a low trademark drive troubled Stefano Sorrentino. Juventus’ overall profligacy was disconcerting with 12 shots on goal and only two on target.
After the break, as Juventus were vexed by Verona, Ronaldo probed and poked. From the edge of the box, from a set piece and in front of the goalmouth, denied by a fantastic, sliding tackle from Fabrizio Cacciatore, the Portuguese was not to score his debut goal.
Instead, in a frantic finale, substitute Federico Bernardeschi turned match winner, not before goal technology and VAR had first contrived to rule out Mario Mandzukic’s goal after Ronaldo had clattered goalkeeper Sorrentino.
Ronaldo’s ‘goal drought’ will dominate headlines, but Chievo offered a vehement response to the question of competitiveness in Serie A.
The behemoth from the north, spurred on by the arrival of their transcendental superstar, will not simply trample over all opponents. Last season, Serie A was the only major top five European league that had a semblance of competition deep into the season when Napoli’s challenge faltered, and Italy’s clubs want to keep it that way.
The defending champions will face sterner tests as the season progresses but the Old Lady’s ambitions reach beyond Serie A and an eighth consecutive league title.
Juve made a statement by acquiring Ronaldo. They want to shed the underdog role in Europe and compete with the continental elite clubs. For that to happen, Juventus and Ronaldo will have to fire on all cylinders. At least, closer to home, an abject summer of misery, after the Squadra Azzurra missed out on the high mass of the game for the first time in 60 years, has come to an end.
** AIPS is the international sports journalists’ association with 10,000 members worldwide. More information: www.AIPSmedia.com
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