Cristiano Ronaldo conjures tricks aplenty for Portugal - except when it really mattered against Spain
Thursday 28 June 2012
It felt wrong that Cristiano Ronaldo did not take one. Portugal's captain had done everything else last night: left-winger, centre-forward, creative midfielder. He must have been waiting to take the fifth kick, the final kick, to win the shoot-out against Spain. But he never got the chance, as Bruno Alves missed and Cesc Fabregas scored.
And so Ronaldo, arguably the most influential player in the history of his country, was left powerless as they went out. He could not help them through the shoot-out and into the final. He could not atone for his miss at the end of normal time, which could have saved so much hassle.
Ronaldo must have been furious when Raul Meireles' last-minute pass arrived just behind him. The Real Madrid player had to readjust his feet but could only shoot over the bar. He had spent all evening hunting and probing for chances, using his versatility to find the gap through which he would send Portugal to Kiev on Sunday.
There is never a sense of a blind alley with Ronaldo. He started on the left wing, worried Spain, but when he did not score he moved inside. As a centre-forward he hit two powerful shots, but sensing space elsewhere he dropped deep, threading passes, winning free-kicks, but still not scoring. All night he took it upon himself to deliver the win. And as much as his 90-minute miss would have hurt, not even taking a penalty must have been worse.
Ronaldo knew from the start what was needed to beat Spain. The reigning world and European champions have a style of play: they pass and pass and pass until their web stifles the opposition. The longer a game goes on, the more deadly they are. Opponents need to strike early.
So the Portugal skipper led them into battle. From the opening minutes he was bounding down the left, harrying Gerard Pique and Alvaro Arbeloa, looking for a slip. His first run came after 13 minutes when he stormed down the left, abandoning Pique and reaching the byline. From there he swung in a nearly perfect cross which Iker Casillas stole from Luis Nani's forehead.
Three minutes later he went again. He burnt down the left channel, this time confronted by Pique and Arbeloa. He ducked in between them and was brought down. The free-kick, though, was from too narrow an angle, and Ronaldo could not avoid the wall.
Versatility, though, is one of the greatest strengths of Ronaldo. He was a great winger before he was a great forward. And so he moved inside as he led the search for an opening. Working, this time, on the edge of the box, the brilliant Joao Moutinho flicked him the ball. Ronaldo spun and volleyed, but did not impart enough control to keep it the exciting side of the cross-bar.
Sensing space in the same area, Ronaldo stayed alert. Next time Moutinho found him, Ronaldo took the ball down and spun inside Pique. Another left-footed shot came, but this one flew just past the post.
Two shots, both wide, and Ronaldo moved on. More than anything else he believes in efficiency. Having exhausted the opportunities on the left and up front, he did not hold on like a romantic, but searched for more space, and dropped deep.
Robbing Sergio Busquets in midfield, Ronaldo ran at Sergio Ramos who brought him down and was booked. Again, scaring the Spanish into giving him space, Ronaldo started to pick passes. Twice he threaded Hugo Almeida into the left channel. But shooting, clearly, could not be trusted to his team-mates, so Ronaldo started to make the chances for himself. He won a free-kick from Arbeloa, which he hit over. He won one from Xabi Alonso, was handed a second try after encroachment, but could still only shoot over. But the real frustrations were yet to come.
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