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Jun 21, 2012

Ronaldo's platform to sparkle

He played on the left. He played on the right. He sometimes played as a centre forward. He powered Portugal into Euro 2012’s semi-finals.

Sixteen years ago this Saturday at Euro '96, Karel Poborsky's unique lob sunk a Portuguese team of whom 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, their golden shot at glory. Stopping Cristiano Ronaldo in international form of the type not seen since the 2006 World Cup was simply too much for them.

The time when Ronaldo was rendered peripheral and frustrated by the drudgery of 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, Paulo Bento has provided him a platform. If Portugal are to mount any challenge for this tournament then they can only do so 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 - almost alone - can provide victory. Bento may publicly shrink from talk of a one-man team, but this was a one-man game.

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 Moutinho saw him shrug off Kadlec using his brawn, but Petr Cech saved. A minute later, five defenders surrounded him 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 him 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 not to be in receipt. 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 from 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 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.

Once Ronaldo had settled in, there were to be no raids down the right. 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 Hugo Almeida, on for hamstrung Helder Postiga, played at centre forward. Ronaldo then linked with Raul Meireles to fire over after making a powerful burst.

Such efforts were rehearsals for a moment that was always going to come. It arrived via a cross from Joao Moutinho. Ronaldo was given the chance to show off the facet that he far outstrips Lionel Messi in; he can head the ball as well as a Tommy Lawton, Nat Lofthouse or Alan Shearer. Ronaldo's power left Cech helpless, and the Czechs hopeless. There was to be no way back.

Donetsk and France or Spain await 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 possess the best player in Europe and now his team-mates 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 launched at errant colleagues but soon, he was using them to provide the goal that would surely come. Now, he may feel he has one over Lionel Messi, in performing at a major international tournament. The semi-final 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 they lost 4-1 in Wroclaw. The first twenty minutes saw them produce some moments of promise down their right flank. After that, they were pinned back and did not produce a shot to test Rui Patricio.

PORTUGAL VERDICT: They were not as impressive as against the Dutch but Paulo Bento was quick to describe this as an "efficient win". Defensively they were as sound as they needed to be against a hardly creative Czech attack. From there, they played for a star man in a structured fashion that reminds somewhat of Argentina in 1986. They do what they need 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 and co received could not be matched, though admittedly not expected either. Portugal, further away and with financial problems wracking their nation, were understandably supported by far fewer fans.

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