KHARKIV, Ukraine -- The mark of a great player is responding in the face of criticism.
An irritated and annoyed Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t hit a barn door against Denmark on Wednesday, but the Ronaldo who vies with Lionel Messi for the tag of best player in the world showed up Sunday in Portugal’s pivotal Group of Death clash with the Netherlands.
Ronaldo scored two goals and was a menace throughout as Portugal beat the Netherlands 2-1 to advance to the quarterfinals and complete the Dutch misery in Kharkiv.
Three games played, three games lost for the Oranje, a statistic few -- apart from the inebriated -- would have forecast on the eve of the European Championships.
Ronaldo ran Dutch right back Gregory van der Wiel ragged, setting the tone by cutting inside and striking a low effort that hit the post. A bullet header went a yard wide, a shot from 30 yards fooled keeper Maarten Stekelenburg to such an extent he could only parry and Nani’s cross missed his head by inches.
He was up for it.
In between, Ronaldo netted to boost his modest tally of three goals in his previous 15 games at the Euros and World Cup when put through brilliantly by right back Joao Pereira. In the 74th minute, on the counter, he finished to the near post, and he was denied a hat trick only by the post.
The Netherlands’ streak of advancing to the knockout stage at the European Championships ends at six. The second (and third and fourth) guessing of manager Bert van Marwijk will continue.
AT LEAST HE SCORED: When Rafael van der Vaart opened the scoring in the 11th minute, the comeback was on for the Dutch. They needed to win by at least two and hope Germany beat Denmark, which happened.
Van der Vaart curled a shot from outside the box into the far corner, and he’ll feel it’s proof he should have started the first two games instead of the disappointing Mark van Bommel. Winger Arjen Robben, one of those who struggled against Denmark and Germany, finally contributed on the goal, drawing three players to him to allow van der Vaart space to shoot. Van der Vaart struck the post in the second half with his right foot. However, he was also stripped of possession on Ronaldo’s game winner.
Robin van Persie, who started on the left side of midfield, fizzled, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar barely touched the ball, getting no service.
NO RESPONSE: Portugal manager Paulo Bento was a tough player in his day, and the toughness can be seen in his team.
Portugal didn’t crumble in the wake of van der Vaart’s goal that had most of the Metalist Stadium on its feet. Rather than retreating and making sure the Dutch didn’t score another, it went on the attack (which might have been the best form of defense).
And when Ronaldo made it 1-1, the Dutch never recovered. Mentally they were done.
DEFENSIVE WOE: Missed opportunities cost the Netherlands in Ukraine, and Van Marwijk was still reminding folks this week his team had 15 good chances against Denmark in last week’s group opener.
Yet don’t forget the role the defense played in the lack of success. Once in possession and able to get behind the Netherlands’ midfield, Denmark, Germany and Portugal exposed the back four.
John Heitinga’s errors cost his side against Denmark and Germany, leading to the Everton man being benched Sunday, and 18-year-old Jetro Willems' bad pass handed Portugal possession before Ronaldo’s first goal. He won’t be the last, but van der Wiel simply couldn’t cope with Ronaldo. He needed midfield cover, too.
DON’T FORGET NANI: With Ronaldo’s two goals, it would be easy to forget Nani’s contribution. But the Manchester United winger shone, especially in the opening 20 minutes. He was the lone Portugal player who kept possession in those early stages.
He should have, though, buried Ronaldo’s cross in the second half. The Portuguese faithful gave him a standing ovation when he was subbed in the 87th minute, a nice gesture by Bento.
A LITTLE NASTY: When Portugal and the Netherlands met at the 2006 World Cup, there were 16 bookings and four yellow cards.
Nothing of the sort happened in Kharkiv, though some nastiness did surface. Who else but Dutch enforcer Nigel de Jong was involved.
De Jong went in hard on Nani in a Manchester City versus Manchester United duel in the seventh minute and sent Raul Meireles to the turf with a strong push in the 66th. Meireles milked it, as did Pepe (a surprise, eh?) when he was caught by van Persie’s arm.
While the Netherlands will be in a hurry to get home, Portugal will be in a hurry to face the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.
Finishing second in the Group of Death, behind Germany, has its privileges.