Every joke contains a grain of truth. There is something inherently funny about good observational comedy in that it invites you to relax and respond by simply discussing something universally familiar. If done well, it evokes something in the subconscious and encourages the audience to instinctively relate.
The delivery is also important. To that end, Virgil van Dijk might consider a future on the stand-up circuit upon his retirement.
With five simple words he forced the football world to think – and for many to agree. “Was he a rival then?” he quipped in response to a reporter asking about Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence from the Ballon d’Or ceremony earlier this month. The Portuguese would end the night officially crowned the current world’s third best player. But do the eyes tell a different story?
The unparalleled determination and single-mindedness remains, if anything reinforced by recent struggles. The intuition and impulse is no less deadly, the footwork no less sharp and snappy. Some trademark stepovers and a shot flashed wide of the post in the 21st minute ensured Aleksandar Dragovic will attest to that.
But there is something lacking in the overall play, of course. Two starters for either Bayer Leverkusen or Juventus had fewer touches: the substituted Lucas Alario and, by one, the home keeper Lukas Hradecky. No player had longer periods of anonymity. His and Gonzalo Higuain’s partnership hardly lends itself to ferocious counter-pressing or intricate combinations.
Maurizio Sarri, with not only qualification but top spot in the group confirmed, would not relent. Paulo Dybala was restricted to the bench in Germany and the manager is still loathe to experiment: attacking threesomes are not an option.
“Right now, playing three forwards is difficult due to the characteristics of the players,” he said last week. “You can’t prohibit Dybala from dropping deep, and at the same time Cristiano’s characteristics are not to play too central. We must take some precautions to fill the penalty area more.”
The message got through. Dybala, within ten minutes of his introduction, created an opportunity for Ronaldo to time his run to perfection and tap into an empty goal. This was no impeccable performance, but the hangover from Saturday’s defeat to Lazio was mercilessly short.
And that is what Ronaldo guarantees – or at least it was. For only the second time this season he has scored in three consecutive club games to cap an otherwise unremarkable 12 months.
His calendar year tally of 22 goals is by no means inconsiderable. But it stands to be his lowest since 2009 and 2007 (both 29). Ronaldo’s most meagre return this decade was 42 in both 2016 and 2017, and he has only just passed the halfway mark with a maximum of three games left.
Since 2010, the Portuguese has been at least 6th in terms of Europe’s top calendar year goalscorers. He is currently outside the top ten, level with Wolfsburg’s Wout Weghorst.
Six players have scored more goals in Serie A this season, with Ciro Immobile boasting over twice as many. Three players topped his tally last campaign.
All of which is to say that his own diagnosis of the Italian league being “the hardest for attackers” was accurate. This past fortnight has seen something close to a return to the standard we have come to expect of Ronaldo, but this might well be the exception to the new rule.
He has raised the bar to ungodly heights, it must be said. His output and athleticism despite turning 35 is remarkable, his threat enduring. And the knockout stages of this tournament are known to bring out the best in him.
What that now is, no-one really knows. An elite centre-forward, undoubtedly. But a more humanised one, carved out of mortal materials as opposed to ethereal elements. And perhaps not even the third best player in his position, never mind the world. Decline – even his – is inevitable.