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Ronaldo falls short of greatness

  • Story Highlights
  • Cristiano Ronaldo scores goal, misses penalty as Man. Utd. win European Cup
  • Portuguese superstar has been criticized for going missing in big games
  • Ronaldo describes failure in shootout as "torture for my head and heart"
  • Ronaldo still falls short of achievements of football's greatest players
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By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- And so the jury is still out on Cristiano Ronaldo. The criticism most commonly levelled at Manchester United's Portuguese superstar is that he is not the man for the big occasion, a player who has not always performed in the games that count.

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Cristiano Ronaldo went from the the worst day of his life to the happiest in five minutes.

On Wednesday it seemed for a while as if that criticism had been laid to rest forever. Tormenting Chelsea's makeshift fullback Michael Essien in the early stages, he then rose above the helpless Ghanaian to power a header into the corner reminiscent of his goal against Roma earlier in the tournament.

A few minutes later he then combined thrillingly with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez in a sweeping move that, had Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech not blocked the Argentine's diving header, would have gone down as one of the greatest goals ever scored in a Champions League final.

Yet Ronaldo faded as Chelsea grew stronger, no longer the main player in an absorbing shifting encounter -- and as helpless a spectator as the supporters who had made the long trip to Moscow when both Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard were cruelly denied winners by the woodwork.

And for all the goals, acclaim, awards and medals Ronaldo has won, his season came within a post's width of an eviscerating conclusion after he had been cast as the culprit in the penalty shootout, shooting weakly into Cech's hands. It was Ronaldo's second key miss from the spot in the Champions League in recent weeks, having blazed wide against Barcelona in the semifinals.

His reprieve came when Chelsea captain John Terry hit the post with a spotkick which would have taken the title to London, setting the stage for Edwin Van Der Sar to save from Nicolas Anelka to clinch United's third European Cup. Ronaldo admitted the five minutes between his failure and Terry's miss had been "torture for my head and heart."

"This is football, I don't know what to say," he said. "I score the goal and miss the penalty. The worst day of my life. But the lads did the job and I feel very proud for them. It means everything for me. Now it's the happiest day of my life."

But the nature of United's victory means this will not be remembered as Ronaldo's final in the same way that Real Madrid's victory in 2002 belongs to Zinedine Zidane, Liverpool's in 2005 to Steven Gerrard, or, most significantly, United's in 1968 to George Best. How good is Ronaldo compared to past greats? Have your say

At 23, Ronaldo still has time to develop but perhaps not as much time as some may think. He is already older than Best was when he tore Benfica apart in 1968. The Brazilian Ronaldo had already won two of his three FIFA world player of the year awards by the time he was the same age. The emphasis on pace in the modern game means that truly great players may be peaking younger, as the fading influence of Ronaldinho at Barcelona has demonstrated.

"I want people to remember me as a player. I want to make my mark in the history of football," Ronaldo has said. In the short term, he has already achieved that goal. Forty-two goals in a season is a phenomenal record and Ronaldo can now add a Champions League winner's medal to his English Premier League medals.

Tellingly, Real Madrid appear eager to break the bank to bring him to the Bernabeu, though Ronaldo said Wednesday he was staying at United.

The real challenge for Ronaldo however is to be remembered among the coterie of all-time greats. He may already be on course to collect FIFA's prestigious world player of the year award and the European equivalent, the Ballon d'Or -- particularly if he maintains his current form into this summer's European Championships with Portugal.

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But Ronaldo and Zidane won three world player of the year titles each, as well as World Cups and European Cups. Johan Cruyff won three European Cups and reached a World Cup final. Michel Platini carried France to the European Championship almost single-handledly and won the Ballon d'Or three times in a row. Franz Beckenbauer lifted the World Cup, the European Championship and three European Cups.

Beyond those and others such as Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano, the achievements of Pele and Diego Maradona are almost unmatchable. By any standards, Ronaldo has a long way to go.

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