Different ball game for wandering genius Cristiano Ronaldo – but the same result

 

The National Stadium

Cristiano Ronaldo may not have exactly arrived. But, in an international tournament, he has finally delivered. Repeatedly.

After a taut, tense game against the Czech Republic in Warsaw, the Portugal captain led by example to thunder a brilliant header past Petr Cech and put his team into the semi-finals of an international competition for the first time since the 2006 World Cup.

In that time, however, it had been one of the curious aspects of Ronaldo's career – his summer form for Portugal has been completely out of sync with his seasonal form for his clubs.

Since embarking on this absolutely sensational scoring run at the start of the 2007-08, he had endured his two worst tournaments, in 2008 and 2010. Indeed, prior to last Sunday against the Dutch, it was eight years since he scored a true goal of consequence at a summer campaign. His last, for example, was the sixth in a 7-0 win over North Korea. That wasn't the case last Sunday. And it certainly wasn't last night.

A very large caveat to Ronaldo's admittedly exceptional performance five days ago in Portugal's 2-1 win was that the Netherlands effectively played without a full-back on his flank as they chased the game. Last night, the Czechs certainly did not allow that. As such, it was all the more impressive that Ronaldo stepped up again to strike.

He was given an early example of how much more constrained this game was going to be when, on receiving the ball in a promising position on 17 minutes, he was immediately and aggressively crowded out by three defenders.

Ronaldo, however, was perfectly prepared to respond with abrasiveness himself. The game was barely minutes old when he berated a team-mate for misplacing a pass and, shortly after feeling the full force of the Czech backline, he used a bit of his own strength to push a marker out of the way and get flagged for a foul.

So, with space at such a premium, Ronaldo attempted to resort to the spectacular: first when he tried an ambitious bicycle kick in the penalty area, then – even more ambitiously – when he attempted one of his trademark long-range free-kicks.

But, while both of those efforts were well wide, the next was not. Ronaldo did absolutely exceptionally to chest the ball down in the box, turn and unluckily hit the post after beating Cech.

In the Dutch game, successive shots against the woodwork were signs he was starting to find his range. It proved to be the case again. Just after half-time, Ronaldo clipped the post with a dipping effort. It was the fourth time he had done so in this tournament.

Still, he could not quite escape the close attention of the Czech defenders in open play. Even when Raul Meireles delightfully put him through moments later, Ronaldo wasn't able to get enough space between himself and the persistent Theodor Gebre Selassie to get a clean sheet.

Of course, part of the problem with Ronaldo and Portugal – for whom he has only scored 0.41 goals a game since 2007 in contrast to 0.87 for his club teams – is the very space he occupies. More than most players at his exceptional level, Ronaldo requires a system to be completely built around him to excel. If teams don't construct counter-attacks to maximise his pace, his impact is minimised. Manchester United did that. Real Madrid do that. Portugal, however, do not. His runs are much more restricted.

On 79 minutes, though, he finally found the kind space that special players do. Getting clear of Gebre Selassie in the box at last, Ronaldo thumped the winning header home.

It may mark a watershed. It may well drive Portugal to the final. And, for an admitted ego like Ronaldo's , it may well see him finally reclaim that Ballon d'Or that he so craves.

 

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