Euro 2012: Is Portugal a one-man team?
Headlines can be deceiving, especially those involving Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.
Ronaldo’s goals have won consecutive matches at the European Championship, sending Portugal into Wednesday’s semifinals against Spain. So readers would be forgiven for thinking there was only one player in the team.
After a faltering start to the tournament, the Real Madrid star rediscovered his scoring touch in the team’s final group game, knocking in both goals in an impressive 2-1 comeback victory over the Netherlands.
Between the expert finishing and the carefully styled haircut, it was a typical showman’s performance.
A display that will have delighted his Twitter followers, who number nearly 11 million, and that was delivered despite taunts of “Messi, Messi, Messi” — his Barcelona rival — from the Dutch fans.
What’s more, it also seemed to liberate him from past tournament failures and remind him, as if the former Manchester United winger needed it, that he is one of the most prolific scorers in club football.
Ronaldo followed up with arguably an even more commanding performance against the Czech Republic, hitting the post twice before heading home the only goal in a hopelessly one-sided quarterfinal match.
Worshipped by fans, admired by teammates and respected by opponents, the 27-year-old Ronaldo has predictably been singled out for praise by everybody at the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine.
Except by the man who, maybe, matters most: his coach.
After beating a Netherlands side that had reached the World Cup final two years ago, Paulo Bento pointedly played down Ronaldo’s exploits.
Post-match, the very first question was whether Bento felt Ronaldo’s performance against the Dutch had answered critics who believe he can’t play as well for Portugal as he does for Real Madrid. Given an open invitation to heap praise on his star player, Bento turned it down flat.
“No, this is a topic that has been discussed excessively,” Bento said. “You’re comparing a player’s performance for his club and his performance for the national team. I think we’ve had enough of that. Right now, above all else, we’re happy and proud of what we’ve done as a team.”
It was a similar story after Ronaldo’s one-man show against the Czechs.
“He has jobs to do within a collective dynamic,” Bento said. “He scored once, but had other chances. I believe we should not reduce our match analysis to the performance of only one player.”
The point that Bento is trying to make is that Ronaldo, for all his prodigious talent, relies on the service of his teammates to make things happen. And the winner against the Czechs was a case in point.
Attacking midfielder Joao Moutinho turned in a superb performance throughout the game, with the high point coming in the 79th minute with a surging run and teasing cross that Ronaldo pounced on.
Raul Meireles has also worked hard down the middle to keep the supply line open to a player who scored 60 goals for the Spanish champions last season, while Nani has chipped in from the flanks.
Clearly, there are 10 other names on the team sheet. But there is no avoiding the conclusion that Portugal simply wouldn’t be where they are now without Ronaldo.
As Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek is well aware, all teams have decent forwards.
“It’s just that Ronaldo is better. He can play with his head, with both feet,” Bilek said. “That decided the match.”
Fear is a weapon in any sport and Ronaldo breeds it in opponents. For defenders, he is a waking nightmare simply because he is so hard to play against.
Try to take him on in a tackle and you risk being made a fool of or being left on your backside — an embarrassment that befell defender Gregory van der Wiel as Ronaldo scored his second against the Netherlands. Back off, and you invite the man with the most venomous long-distance shot in football to use your goal for target practice.
If he has no friends among defenders, goalkeeper like him even less.
His dipping, weaving free kicks fly over defensive walls at astonishing speed and he has long been a sublime header of the ball. His strike against the Czechs was just the kind of header that keepers hate — downward, with power, and landing just in front of them.
Add his blistering pace and mobility, and it’s not surprising that Ronaldo has taken a modest Portugal side within a game of the Euro 2012 final.
So, is Portugal a one-man team?
It certainly looks that way.