Ronaldo shining on big stage
WARSAW, Poland -- He played on the left. He played on the right. He sometimes played as a center forward. He powered Portugal into Euro 2012’s semifinals.
Sixteen years ago this Saturday at Euro '96, Czech Karel Poborsky's unique lob sunk a Portuguese team about which so much had been expected since winning the World Youth Championships in 1991. Euro 2004 saw both teams felled by the same blunt sword when the Czechs lost to Greece in the semis. In turn, Portugal lost in that tournament's final, a night when Cristiano Ronaldo shed teenage tears in front of a largely unsympathetic world.
The Czechs' task this time was not to stop an entire golden generation but Portugal’s one shining star, its golden shot at glory. But stopping Cristiano Ronaldo in fine international form – the best he’s been in since the 2006 World Cup – was simply too much for them.
The time when Ronaldo was rendered peripheral and frustrated by the drudgery of former manager Carlos Queiroz's tactics is in the past. "You can go ask Queiroz," was Ronaldo's tart reply when asked why Portugal played so badly in South Africa. At Euro 2012, manager Paulo Bento has provided him a platform. If Portugal is to mount any challenge for this tournament, it can do so only by getting the best from Ronaldo. Making him feel comfortable, highly valued and not overworked or isolated is key to a sense of well-being from which he – and almost he alone – can provide victory. Bento may publicly shrink from talk of a one-man team, but this was a one-man game that saw Portugal defeat the Czech Republic 1-0 in the quarterfinals.
The Czechs' aim was to strike when their opponents became frustrated. Ronaldo, though, was truly irrepressible, the quality of his performance wrecking any Czech plan, his work rate as redoubtable as any of theirs, his quality a planet apart, let alone a continent.
Ronaldo's first touch was a failed feint met with derision from Czech fans. After eight minutes, he flounced at a misplaced pass, for which he was again roundly mocked. He would soon provide Czech fans much to be concerned about. A 25th-minute exchange of passes with Joao Moutinho saw Ronaldo shrug off Michal Kadlec using his brawn, but Petr Cech saved the day for his team . A minute later, five defenders surrounded Ronaldo as he powered on to a pass from Moutinho again. Even Ronaldo cannot fly through such numbers. An overhead kick was swiftly attempted, but missed. Then came a free-kick that was hit well enough but flew wide.
The 42nd minute saw Ronaldo pirouette and begin a Portuguese attack, burst out to the right of the area in expectation but then not receive the ball. This time, he did not look quite so annoyed. It was becoming clear that the moment might arrive soon. The momentum was with him. A movement into a more central role than the left-wing thrust position he has played so far during Euro 2012 brought the first half's moment of near-gold.
As with the overhead kick, the ball arrived via unlikely crossing king, central defender Pepe, but this time Ronaldo controlled the ball, flicked it over his shoulder and rattled Cech's left-hand post.
The Czech plan had been to attack down Portugal's left, where Ronaldo was figuratively supposed to be and would be expected to do little defending. Fabio Coentrao, the Real Madrid colleague hardly acclaimed for his defensive attributes, would have to get through an awful amount of work against the hard-running of Petr Jiracek and the overlaps of Theodor Gebre Selassie. However, such an attacking method relied on actual possession of the ball.
The second half saw Ronaldo seize yet tighter control. He hit the right-hand post with a free-kick. By that time, he had resumed his left-wing role, as Bruno Almeida, on for hamstrung Helder Postiga, played at center forward. Ronaldo then linked with Raul Meireles to fire over the goal after making a powerful burst.
Such efforts were rehearsals for a moment that was always going to come. It arrived via a cross from Moutinho. Ronaldo was given the chance to show off one area of the game in which he is far better than Lionel Messi – Ronaldo can head the ball as well as a Tommy Lawton, Nat Lofthouse or Alan Shearer. Ronaldo's powerful head left Cech helpless and the Czechs hopeless. There was to be no way back.
France or Spain in Donetsk awaits Portugal. The hero was happy to concede credit for his team's progress. The individualist spoke as a collective.
"Our aim is to reach the final," Ronaldo said. "And the chances are 50-50 and we just have to believe. We controlled the game for more than 50 minutes. We had a great unity on the pitch and that is why we have reached our goal, and I would like to congratulate the whole team."
And he may well thank them. Portugal possesses the best player in Europe and now his teammates and coach have provided him the system with which to compound that status.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo
Rarely can there be such a unanimous winner of this lofty award. He began with fire in his belly. Early on, this was directed at errant colleagues, but soon he was using his passion to provide the goal that would surely come. Now Ronaldo may feel he has one over on his great rival Messi – in performing at a major international tournament. The semifinal offers either revenge for 2006 against the French or a chance to oust the country where he plays his club football.
CZECH REPUBLIC VERDICT: This was a more comprehensive defeat than that to Russia, even though it lost 4-1 in Wroclaw. The first 20 minutes saw the Czech Republic produce some moments of promise down its right flank. After that, it was pinned back and did not produce a shot to test Rui Patricio.
PORTUGAL VERDICT: It was not as impressive as against the Dutch, but Paulo Bento was quick to describe this as an "efficient win.” Defensively, Portugal was as sound as it needed to be against a hardly creative Czech attack. From there, it played for a star man in a structured fashion that reminds somewhat of Argentina in 1986 with Diego Maradona. It does what it needs to do. He does what he wants. And it has worked so far.
NATIONAL PRIDE: Warsaw's National Stadium – Stadion Narodowy – is just not the same when its intended inhabitants do not play here. Czechs fans bounced in fine spirit, but the roof-raising support that Robert Lewandowski & Co. received could not be matched, though admittedly not expected either. Portugal, further away and with financial problems wracking their nation, was understandably supported by far fewer fans.