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Echoes of Cristiano Ronaldo as Sebastian Giovinco proves he’s still Toronto FC’s main man

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Like the Real Madrid star, the Italian’s game is changing - but it may be a case of addition by subtraction.

MLS: Canadian Championship-Montreal Impact at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly everything is down for Sebastian Giovinco.

Shots, chances created, dribbles, touches - the Italian is contributing less in all of those categories this year than he was in 2015 and 2016.

It’s been cause for plenty of debate around Giovinco’s form during the first half of the 2017 campaign, and on more than one occasion it has felt as if that scrutiny has found a hole in his armour.

Now, though, there is one stat he has made a gain in, and it matters more than all of the others: trophy-winning goals.

When Toronto FC needed him most, trailing as they were with 45 minutes to play in the Canadian Championship final, Giovinco reminded everyone just how good he is.

“It was a beautiful night,” he beamed afterwards.

“Today, he showed that in some moments he is just a little bit quicker than everybody else and a little bit sharper than everybody else,” Greg Vanney enthused.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

Nowhere more so than for Toronto’s first goal of their 2-1 win. His view of a chipped Michael Bradley pass blocked by Ignacio Piatti’s failed attempt to clear it, Giovinco had a fraction of a second in which to angle his body to get the ball under some kind of control. His second touch brought it under his spell, his third set up the shot and then it was in the back of the net.

The winning goal, a first-time shot from little more than six yards, appeared simpler on first viewing but was revealing for a couple of reasons beyond its magnitude.

The first is that for the second consecutive game, Giovinco looked fresher and sharper than the defenders trying to stop him in the final minutes and scored.

“I’m proud of him, also,” Vanney said, “because coming off the [MLS Cup] final where he wasn’t able to stay on the field through extra time... tonight, to be there in a big game and bury the two goals that went in for us, it’s a huge night for him.”

Take a closer look at the second goal; Giovinco’s involvement does not start and end with his finish. When Jozy Altidore is tackled on the edge of the box and Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla attempts to dribble out of danger, Giovinco chases back and is one-third of a triangle completed by Bradley and Marky Delgado that leaves Ballou with nowhere to go.

Giovinco then picks up the loose ball, hurdles one wild sliding tackle and fights to get the ball out to Victor Vazquez while being hauled down by his shoulder.

Vanney has credited an “incredible” work ethic in training for the 30-year-old’s new-found energy late in games but it is also notable that in MLS, Giovinco is on track for his lowest minutes total over a full season by some distance.

The second point to note is that despite the statistics showing a decrease in his overall involvement in games, the goal that sealed the Voyageurs Cup was Giovinco’s 10th in 10 home matches this season.

That is one off the total he amassed at BMO Field over the entirety of the 2016 season, playoffs excluded, and three short of his MVP-winning 2015 tally. In front of his own fans, Giovinco has been more prolific than ever.

(His away form is a different story, but it is difficult to draw deeply meaningful conclusions based on a four-and-a-half-game sample size in what have sometimes been trying circumstances.)

MLS: Canadian Championship-Montreal Impact at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

It is all somewhat reminiscent of what has happened to a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.

Last season, Ronaldo created half the number of chances he did in 2014-15 and attempted half the dribbles he had in 2013-14. As has been the case for Giovinco this year, nearly all of his key attacking stats have declined.

As that has happened, though, Real Madrid have enjoyed their most successful period in 15 years, with Ronaldo leading them to back-to-back Champions League titles. He will be rewarded on an individual basis with yet another Ballon d’Or in December.

Ronaldo is not trying to be as dominant in every facet of the game partially because he has aged, but also because Zinedine Zidane does not need him to. He is no longer the only chance Madrid have of beating Barcelona; now, they are simply the better team.

That has taken some of the burden off Ronaldo, allowing him to both transition into more of a pure goalscoring role and manage his minutes to be fresher for the biggest games of the year.

MLS: Canadian Championship-Montreal Impact at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

With Altidore now fit and firing week in, week out, Bradley playing his best football in a Toronto shirt and Vazquez immediately installing himself as one of MLS’ top playmakers, it feels as if the same thing is happening with Giovinco.

During the Italian’s first season in MLS, in which he was indisputably the league’s best player, Toronto were a team with serious flaws that were exposed in the first round of the playoffs.

Now they are on pace for one of the best seasons in the history of the North American top flight and the favourites for the MLS Cup, and that Giovinco isn’t always the best player on the pitch is evidence of the progress they have made.

That doesn’t mean he won’t be when it matters most, though.