Thanks to a magical little maestro named Lionel Messi, no one ever talks about Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world any more. What was once a discussion about who was soccer's finest exponent is now a mere statement of fact.
It is hard to think of a character like Ronaldo, with all his brashness and pomposity and undeniable arrogance, being disregarded. Yet, in a sense, that is exactly what has happened.
Wednesday night saw the 26-year-old take Real Madrid into the Champions League semifinals, and a showdown with old foe Barcelona, led by the mercurial Messi. Ronaldo's goal at White Hart Lane was both fortuitous – his long-range shot was clumsily dropped by Tottenham goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes – and surplus to requirements, with Real already nursing a four-goal advantage from the first leg.
However, it was Ronaldo's 40th goal of a glittering campaign and his 72nd in 79 games since leaving Manchester United for a world-record sum of $131 million in June 2009, remarkable statistics by any standard.
Back when he left England he was considered the best and most famous player in the world and held the title of the FIFA World Footballer of the Year. Now he is an even better player, combining his extra consistency and experience with the flair, skill and physicality. But, thanks to Messi and his brilliant Barcelona cohorts designing new standards of excellence and ingenuity, his achievements no longer get quite as much recognition.
Right now there is something – only one thing – he can do about it: Win this season's Champions League, stopping Messi and Barca in their tracks in the semifinals. It could elevate Ronaldo back to the ultimate level of respect he covets. It certainly won't be easy, but the target is laid out in front of him and is chillingly straightforward.
Real and Barca will go head to head four times in 18 days, with meetings in the Spanish King's Cup final and La Liga to go along with the Champions League doubleheader. It is those two matchups in Europe's biggest competition, though, which will define Real's season; a two-legged showdown that, with no disrespect to United or Schalke, would have made for a wonderful final.
"[Barcelona] is a great team but they are not from another planet," Ronaldo told UEFA.com. "They are human just like us. They play good football, sure, but so do we. We are feeling good both physically and mentally. Our ambition at the start of this tournament was to go very far but we know we have a difficult rival next."
Real's overall performances against a Spurs side that had been outstanding in Europe were full of quality, and Ronaldo relished facing English opposition again. Once more there is a genuine joy in his work, with some impudent tricks and flicks and even some playful posturing with the crowd as a staff member tied his bootlace during a break in play.
It is the overall package that makes Ronaldo Real's driving force, and the reason why the Spanish club is unlikely to sell him even if AC Milan comes in with a monstrous summer transfer offer.
Both of Wednesday's quarterfinal second legs were effectively over before they started, although Spurs, despite being four goals down, constantly pressed forward and set up an entertaining game. The North London club may not be back in the Champions League next season. However its star player, Gareth Bale, might be, albeit with another team.
Over in Germany, Schalke completed the job it began last week by seeing off defending champion Inter Milan. Schalke might be the least heralded of the four semifinalists but is well worthy of being at this stage and fully capable of pulling off a further surprise against United.
In reality though, the Real vs. Barca show is the one everyone wants to see. Ronaldo vs. Messi, Jose Mourinho vs. Pep Guardiola, history and hatred and points to prove.
And a chance for Ronaldo to show that he is not only better than when he was the best, but that he can once again be worthy of the accolade of soccer's greatest performer.