As utterly routine as a Cristiano Ronaldo goal - or indeed hat-trick - has become over the past five years, there was still something very distinctive about his final strike against Galatasaray on Tuesday night beyond its supreme quality.
For what is a surprisingly rare feat these days from the Portuguese forward, he used sleight of feet and an element of pure trickery to beat not one defender but two, before slamming the ball home. It was a hugely intimidating combination of chicanery and shock and awe.
Because, over the past few years, there can be little dispute that the fundamental root of Ronaldo’s world-class performances has been uncomplicated power. Rather than beat opponents with true innovation, he has tended to just take them out of the equation through force - either basic pace, shooting or heading. There is almost an unstoppable directness about his general play, which is in contrast to Leo Messi’s defter evasiveness.
Not so on Tuesday, which also saw the supposedly selfish Ronaldo assist Karim Benzema through a delightful swerved cross with the outside of his boot. At 28 years old, and the age that has traditionally seen players reach their peak, it is possible this represents a maturation in which he finally brings all of the strands of his ability together.
Either way, the trickery displayed harked back to his younger days. It was also a reminder of just how staggeringly far he’s come. Arguably more than any other genuinely elite player over the past two decades, Ronaldo has enjoyed an exceptional exponential growth.
Of course, none of this is to say his talent was ever in dispute. The Portuguese was clearly always going to be a special player. But, up until the age of 21 and that breakthrough run that began in early 2006, Ronaldo was as notorious for his frustrating wastefulness as he was known for his eyebrow-raising ability. There were more inconsequential stepovers than meaningful strikes. That is illustrated in his goal return.
The following is a list of players’ records from the past two decades who, just like Ronaldo, would have been considered mostly attacking wide players from the ages of 18 to 21. These periods of their career have been specifically chosen because they compare to the position and development of the Portuguese’s first three seasons at United, even if differing months of birth mean there is some give and take as regards the seasons used.
The stats are surprising. A number of players who haven’t got close to Ronaldo in terms of scoring - or even in terms of career achievement - had superior returns. Note Harry Kewell and Ludovic Giuly. In other words, Ronaldo’s strike output was no more than mediocre, at least in the context of talented young wingers.
Around that period, Alex Ferguson even felt he had to use wagers to try and improve the player's scoring. Ronaldo even lost the first two, as the United manager challenged him to get 10 and then 15. Ferguson admitted on the eve of last season’s Champions League tie with Real Madrid that he “never thought” the forward could reach his current strike rate.
Because, usually with such a standard of achievement, there is some very conspicuous early indicator. Note Messi’s goal returns at such a young age. With Ronaldo, however, there was quite simply nothing to suggest this.
The following stats are the prime periods of the continent’s most prolific elite goalscorers since the creation of the European Cup. For proper comparison, only those who played at least a portion in that elite competition are included, while there must be at least two full seasons of high rates. Those who only played in South America, such as Pele, were also discounted.
The point to all of this is not just that Ronaldo has obviously improved, honed his game or altered his position. It is that he has gone from a scoring record that was arguably less than mediocre for a talented young winger, to one that is of historic quality for anyone in the sport.
In that context, it is genuinely remarkable.
The reasons for it are by now well known. Gary Neville has previously spoken of how Ronaldo returned from the 2006 World Cup a more powerful presence, and with the edges also shaven off his game. After that, as Rene Meulensteen has pointedly explained, United worked with him on his efficiency, his ruthlessness.
Most of all, though, there is simply a player who is utterly determined to become the best he can possibly be. As the stats below reveal, there is a frightening bloody-mindedness to his approach since joining Real Madrid. He has attempted more shots over that period than anyone else in the top 5 European leagues, but it has clearly paid off.
The most ominous aspect of all is that, as the game against Galatasaray illustrated, his evolution might not have ended yet.
Is Cristiano Ronaldo going to continue getting better or is he at his peak at present? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below