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European Championship

'Expect nothing but greatness' - Why 'beast' Ronaldo remains Portugal's leading man

4:00 PM EDT 6/14/21
Cristiano Ronaldo Bruno Fernandes Bernardo Silva Portugal GFX
After a difficult season at Juventus and with other attackers thriving, there have been calls for Fernando Santos to drop his captain at Euro 2020

When Fernando Santos was asked nine months ago if his Portugal side are a better side without Cristiano Ronaldo in it, he shrugged and smiled before delivering his answering. 

"I don't think any team in the world can perform better when its best player is not around," the Euro 2016-winning boss replied. 

Given the five time Ballon d’Or winner’s impact over the past 19 years it is, in some ways, hard to believe we have arrived at the stage where that question was even being posed. 

Ronaldo is a national hero and always will be. From the young boy who sobbed at the Euro 2004 final as Portugal lost to Greece, to the phenomenal athlete who has chased, and in most cases obliterated, nearly every record available to him while guiding his clubs and country to glory, Ronaldo is a national idol.

He has more records in his sights, too. He stands on 104 goals for his country, and has Iran's Ali Daei’s record of 109 goals in men's internationals well within his grasp. 

“All records must be broken, and I will beat that record,” the Juventus forward said in 2019. 

There are also a raft of other personal accolades he could claim during this tournament.

A single goal will make him outright top scorer in the history of the European Championship, overtaking France great Michel Platini, while a single win will take him above Spanish stars Cesc Fabregas and Andres Inisesta for most games won at the tournament.

And, should Portugal go all the way, he would become only the second captain to lift consecutive Euros. 

Ronaldo seemingly has the capability to do anything he wants on a football field, but after a difficult season at Juventus, where the Serie A side finished fourth and had to win on the final day of the campaign to even qualify for the Champions League, questions have been raised as to whether his powers are diminishing. 

Of course, the man himself has no such concerns. 

“I’m not the same player I was at18 or 10 years ago or five years ago, but we keep adjusting," the 36-year-old told a press conference ahead of Portugal's opening game iat Euro 2020 against Hungary on Tuesday.

"The most intelligent thing about a football player is the ability to adjust, and I’m more mature than I was before. If a player wants to play for many many years they must adjust. 

“My numbers speak for themselves. From 18 to 36 I’ve learnt to adjust and adapt, and I‘ve always been able to win. I have adjusted all along in my career.”

Ronaldo is probably right. Despite an ‘off season’, he still finished the 2020-21 campaign with 29 goals in 33 league appearances. Most, if not all strikers would snap your hand off for such a return at any point in their careers. 

The problem for Santos, though, and why he is fielding his questions regarding whether or not to play his captain, is the plethora of attacking options he has available aside from Ronaldo.

Ever since Portugal’s 4-1 demolition of Croatia in September - a game Ronaldo missed - the debate about his importance to the squad has escalated. 

That day it was Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Diogo Jota who more than made up for Ronaldo’s absence. It was a scintillating attacking display, which led to demands for Santos to depart from his conservative favoured 4-4-2 formation and adopt a more attacking 3-4-3 to get the most out of his talented squad. 

Fernandes, though, disputes whether the Seleccao play any in an alternate style with or without their usual talisman.

“We were not asked to play any differently [without Ronaldo], our ambition remains the same," the Manchester United man said after after Portugal beat Sweden without Ronaldo a month after the Croatia win.

"The team has great values, but it is obvious that it is easier to win with the best in the world."

And, it is precisely for that reason that despite all the debate surrounding Ronaldo's suitablity, he will be the man to lead his side out at the Puskas Arena for their Group F opener.

Santos knows he can rely on his star man in what will be a difficult group to get out of, with clashes against Germany and France coming up following their meeting with Hungary.

And even debate about his club future, with reports suggesting Juve could look to sell this summer, will not be enough to deter his focus. 

“I have been playing at the highest level for many years, this doesn’t faze me," Ronaldo said. "Maybe if I was 18 or 19 I might have had some sleepless nights, but I’m 36. 

“Whatever comes will be for the best, regardless of staying at Juve or being transferred. The crucial thing now is the Euros. It is my fifth Euros, but for me it’s like my first Euros."

His focus is as laser sharp as ever, and as he trained with his team-mates in Budapest on Monday, he looked relaxed and calm.

The bigger question for Santos, then, is not whether Ronaldo starts, but how he goes about striking a balance behind his No.7. 

Bernardo, Fernandes and Felix seem sure to start meaning Jota looks set to be the odd-man-out despite his impressive first season at Liverpool.

Jota’s development has seen him tipped to become Ronaldo’s replacement in the coming years, but the former Manchester United man is not ready to give up his mantle as Portugal’s talisman just yet. 

This is his 11th major championship and likely his final Euros, so no doubt he will want to go out with a bang by claiming as many records and awards as possible. 

As Ronaldo's team-mate Jose Fonte put it: "He’s still a beast, so expect nothing else but greatness!”