World Cup a fitting stage for Ronaldo’s awesome talent
Portugal may be a side with obvious limitations but they do possess a great player in his prime
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo in action against the Republic of Irleland’s Alex Pearce and David Meyler during the recent friendly international at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Photo: Justin Lane/EPA
The original motivation for Martin O’Neill to attend today’s game between Germany game against Portugal was, he said, to weigh up the top seeds from Ireland’s qualifying group.
But after the way Portugal romped past his weakened side in New Jersey last week, the northerner would probably draw some summer consolation in Salvador from a another big win for Paulo Bento’s side.
The former Sunderland boss might quite fancy the Portuguese winning the title so as to put the 5-1 defeat in a more favourable context.
But that’s a long-shot at best and an absolute impossibility unless their star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, tops even his own performance at Euro 2012.
Then he hauled his side almost single-handedly to the semi-finals where they came close to eliminating Spain before losing in a penalty shoot-out that ended even before he had had the chance to contribute.
The 29 year-old has been outstanding, ending a long and painful period in the shadow of his rival Lionel Messi to utterly eclipse the Argentine with a succession of stunning displays that powered Real Madrid to Champions League success.
The challenge here is rather more daunting, though, with a generally ordinary Portugal team looking ill-equipped to take on the world’s best, even if their captain is firing on all cylinders . . .something that, after recent knee and thigh problems, cannot be taken completely for granted.
A decade ago, when Ronaldo was still in the process of making his name, the Portuguese were just a top class striker short of lifting the Euro 2004 title on home soil.
Then manager Felipe Scolari’s critical error may have been to stand by some slightly second-rate ones rather than taking a bigger chance on the youngster who came off the bench to score his second goal of the tournament in the final defeat by Greece.
Now, he is head and shoulders above anyone else in terms of importance. Joao Moutinho may have the most assists in qualifying, William Carvalho may be a rising star and the team’s central defensive pairing of Pepe and Bruno Alves might still just about make a list of the international game’s best.
But Bento knows the game plan has to revolve entirely around Ronaldo with the general message from the bench being: “Give it to him!”
The former Manchester United star’s record in World Cups in not actually that great with just two goals in 10 games.
But he played an important part in the side reaching the semis in 2006 and was phenomenal at times in the last European Championships as Portugal, bounced back from a defeat against Germany to qualify for the quarter-finals thanks to a dramatic win over the Netherlands after which he was again absolutely central to the defeat of the Czech Republic.
Overall, he was the tournament’s joint top scorer and had the most attempts on goal, on and off target, rather easily outstripping the efforts of his nearest rival, Mario Balotelli.
Much was expected of the gifted Moutinho two years ago but he looked a little run-of-the -mill by comparison with his more celebrated team-mate and it is hard to know how he might deliver here after failing to settle at Monaco this season.
Ronaldo, though, continues to scale new heights, driven, it’s clear, by a determination to be, and to be recognised as, the very best.
He looked slightly demented when celebrating his goal late in the Champions League final with his shirt off but it capped a spectacular club season during which he scored 31 league and 17 Champions League goals and on the international front, his hat-trick away to Sweden in the qualification play-offs comfortably trumped the contribution of that tie’s other great player – Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The fact that Portugal found themselves having to qualify through the play-offs again, though, says a good deal about the calibre of the side.
There is no great shame in losing to Russia in Moscow but drawing both home and away to Israel and dropping two more points at home to Northern Ireland can scarcely be seen as the mark of would-be champions.
That is why the likes of former USA defender Alexi Lalas rates Ronaldo as “the most important and valuable player to any team at this World Cup. I think you can take Neymar off and you can take Messi off and their teams can still win but if you take Ronaldo off they go from 100 to 75 per cent and that is a dramatic drop.”
Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer wasn’t going out of his way to argue yesterday at Germany’s pre-match press conference as he suggested that Portugal are not just about one man before acknowledging that: “at his best Ronaldo is one of the most dangerous attacking players in the world”.
But even Ronaldo, with all his self-confidence, might recognise that time is beginning to run out for him on the international stage. He will be 33 when the next World Cup comes around and if his pace has started to desert him at that stage then he will be stripped on one of his most devastating assets.
So Portugal need to make the most of him while he is still at the peak of his powers if things are to go well in what looks a tough group and potentially tricky second round game.
They are still short a really top class striker and they are short, they know, one or two other things too but, fitness permitting, they have Cristiano and there are plenty of sides that would settle for that.