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Fifteen years on from Portsmouth stunner, was Ronaldo ever a great free-kick taker?

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Cristiano Ronaldo has scored many famous goals.

Undoubtedly, though, one of his most celebrated strikes came 15 years ago, on January 30, 2008.

On a winter evening at Old Trafford, Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth rocked up in fine form on the road, having won seven of their 12 away games in the Premier League.

Yet Ronaldo, in the midst of a 31-goal season in the top tier, was the difference.

Having put Manchester United ahead in the 10th minute, Ronaldo stepped up, just under 30 yards out from goal, three minutes later.

His free-kick, taken in what would become his trademark style, went up, over the wall and swerved remarkably into the right-hand corner. David James, the Portsmouth goalkeeper, had no chance.

That goal is often thought of as the typical Ronaldo free-kick. Power, panache and pinpoint accuracy.

But is Ronaldo actually as good as a free-kick taker as that goal might suggest? Using Opta data, Stats Perform has taken a look.

Quantity, not quality?

Since that goal against Portsmouth up until the day his second spell at United ended (November 23, 2022), Ronaldo had more shots from direct free-kicks than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues.

Of the 645 shots Ronaldo had, 41 resulted in a goal. That is from 700 club games, across stints at United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

On the face of it, that goal tally does not stand out as particularly impressive, at least given the fact that Ronaldo netted 619 times in total.

Yet he is behind only Lionel Messi (who else?) when it comes to goals from direct free-kicks, with the Barcelona great scoring on 51 occasions from such situations.

That gives Messi an 8.1 per cent conversion rate from free-kicks in that timeframe, in contrast to Ronaldo’s 6.3 per cent.

Naturally, given their status in the game, Ronaldo and Messi will almost always pull rank when it comes to set-pieces, especially at a free-kick in a dangerous position.

Miralem Pjanic, who ranks third for direct free-kick goals and was a club-mate of both players at Barca and Juve respectively, boasts better conversion rate than either (nine per cent).

Neymar’s 13 goals from 147 attempts gives him an 8.8 per cent success rate, while James Ward-Prowse’s 12 per cent (15 from 125, though this figure of course does not account for his strike against Everton earlier in January) is close to double what Ronaldo managed.

Indeed, when ranked against players from Europe’s big five leagues that scored 10 or more direct free-kicks between January 31, 2008 and November 23, 2022, only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dani Parejo had lower conversion rates than Ronaldo.

Club by club

So, having established that Ronaldo’s free-kick finishing was somewhat erratic following that stunner against Portsmouth, let’s check on how he stacked up at each club.

Across his career in Europe’s top five leagues, Ronaldo netted 48 free-kicks in all competitions, from 782 shots (6.1 per cent).

Thirteen of those goals came at United, with five each in his final two seasons of his first spell at the club.

Indeed, Ronaldo’s peak when it came to free-kicks was definitely between the 2007-08 season and the 2013-14 campaign, when he scored 35 times from that type of dead-ball situation.

His best single season tally was six, in the 2009-10 season – his first at Madrid.

From 2014-15 onwards he did not manage more than three free-kick goals during a season, while he scored only twice from 86 such attempts while at Juve, and managed no goals from four free-kicks in his second stint at United.

One of the greats?

As well as his effort against Portsmouth, Ronaldo has many other memorable free-kicks in the bank.

His stunning, 40-yard strike against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final; a mesmerising hit from even further out in a Madrid derby in 2012; and who can forget that spellbinding, hat-trick sealing effort that secured a last-gasp draw for Portugal against Spain in a 3-3 thriller at the 2018 World Cup.

Ronaldo might have gone off the boil from dead balls since the halcyon days either side of his move from Manchester to Madrid, yet there’s no doubting that when he hits them true, there’s not much any goalkeeper can do.

While he may not go down as one of the greatest free-kick takers in history statistically, he has definitely been a scorer of some great free-kicks down the years.

And who knows, maybe there’ll be more to come in Saudi Arabia.

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