The world’s most expensive player needs little introduction. Expect, of course, if you were a football fan oblivious to anything going on outside the World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo has, in short, failed to live up to his billing.
While arch-nemesis Lionel Messi has cut a pivotal figure by pulling the strings in the Argentina offence, despite incredibly failing to score as yet, Ronaldo has flitted in and out of game. ‘CR9’ has been more a peripheral figure for Portugal than their fulcrum.
And yet the Seleccao are in the last 16 with comparatively little fuss. It is now that the men have been sorted from the boys that they will most struggle to win without their key figure excelling.
In the centre of the Portuguese midfield Raul Meireles and Tiago have shouldered a disproportionate responsibility, but against Spain this central midfield duo will do well to enjoy a significant look in - so adept are la Furia Roja at simply maintaining possession for long periods of the game.
Left-back Fabio Coentrao is another who has caught the eye for the Seleccao, but with the attacking might of the Spanish Armada ready to flex its muscles once again, he will likely be forced to cut down the frequency of his swashbuckling breaks forward in favour of a more conservative approach.
Coach Carlos Queiroz cannot necessarily rely on lone striker Hugo Almeida for goals either – he has a respectable 11 in 28 appearances, though all of these have come against lowly ranked opposition.
It’s time for Cristiano Ronaldo to step from the shade and finally shine on the international stage.
Prolific on the club scene with Manchester United and now Real Madrid, the 25-year-old has failed to replicate his breathtaking form domestically when dressed in his national shirt. His record of 23 goals in 75 caps is by no means embarrassing, but it’s not the record of a player who is supposed to be carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.
Critics may justly point out that Ronaldo’s goals-per-game ratio at international level is stronger than Lionel Messi’s for Argentina (albeit only very slightly), but this could be countered by an argument that the South American’s task is made harder by playing a consistently higher level of opponent when clad in Albiceleste.
More importantly, Argentina simply don’t need Messi in the same way as Portugal need Ronaldo. Diego Maradona’s side have class oozing from virtually every pore, especially in attack, whereas CR9 is by some way the Seleccao’s most important player. And he will need to show why against Spain if Queiroz is to lead his side into the last eight.
To unlock Spain, Portugal are likely to need something a little special. Despite firing seven past a ragged and naive North Korea, goals have been surprisingly scarce for the Seleccao, who have already drawn blanks against Cote d’Ivoire and Brazil in this competition.
The discrepancy between the Ronaldo of Real and the Ronaldo of Portugal:
|1||Number of goals Ronaldo has scored in the 2010 World Cup Finals
|2||Number of goals 'CR9' has scored for Portugal since Euro 2008
|0.1||Cristiano Ronaldo's goals-per-competitive-game ratio for Portugal since Euro 2008|
||Ronaldo's overall goals-per-game record for the Seleccao
||The goals-per-game ratio of Ronaldo for Real Madrid
It is no surprise to learn that over this barren spell for the Portuguese side Ronaldo’s contribution has been distinctly limited. Prior to his goal against North Korea, the Real Madrid ace had gone nearly 18 months without an international goal.
Remember Euro 2008 through the mists of time? Ronaldo has found the net only twice for Portugal since then, mustering 59 goals in 88 club appearances over the same period. It is little wonder that the Seleccao limped through World Cup qualifying only after two 1-0 playoff victories over Bosnia with their key performer on such modest form.
Eliminating Spain will take more than a simply modest performance. La Furia Roja’s record on the international scene over the last four years has been mind-blowingly brilliant, and even if Vicente del Bosque’s side have yet to find top gear in South Africa, they continue to make fearsome opponents.
Intimidating they may be, but Ronaldo can easily be their match. Against Joan Capdevila he should fancy his chances, having already faced the Villarreal left-back in La Liga action, winning 6-2 with los Blancos.
There are no unknown quantities in the Spanish side for Ronaldo, and he will be the inspiration that Portugal must draw from. If CR9 can start causing problems down the flank, it’s inevitable that those around him can begin to display their wares, and with a little additional time and space, the likes of Meireles and Tiago can thrive. They may otherwise struggle.
The Seleccao can worry Spain, but unless Ronaldo finally excels on the biggest stage, it’s all but certain they’ll be making a premature return home from South Africa.