Ronaldo happy to let others take the pressure

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The Independent Football

After Roonaldo, Ronaldo - Cristiano of that ilk - is a little surprised to find himself being upstaged at Euro 2004 by an even younger teenager, but probably not displeased to find some of the dazzling spotlight of attention being shone elsewhere. Tomorrow comparisons will inevitably be made when they share the stage as Portugal meet England in what promises to be a compelling quarter-final.

After Roonaldo, Ronaldo - Cristiano of that ilk - is a little surprised to find himself being upstaged at Euro 2004 by an even younger teenager, but probably not displeased to find some of the dazzling spotlight of attention being shone elsewhere. Tomorrow comparisons will inevitably be made when they share the stage as Portugal meet England in what promises to be a compelling quarter-final.

At club level a similar breed of manager in Everton's David Moyes and Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson has worked hard to ensure that the pair's progress on the pitch is steady, though it has often been hard holding them back, and that exposure off it is limited. Once on international duty, they can only trust those in charge to keep the reins as tight.

Moyes, who once caused ructions by insisting on being present when his boy had a medical examination by the England doctor, was not amused by Sven Goran Eriksson's light-hearted comment after the Switzerland game that if he was a club manager he would seeking the number of Rooney's agent. He would have been happier after Monday night's match to see Rooney leave clutches of waiting reporters looking like so many flat-footed defenders as he skipped away from the Estadio da Luz without so much as a "I just hit it and it went in". Yesterday Ronaldo, a whole year older at 19, was on parade at the impressive training camp of his old club Sporting Lisbon for a well attended media conference shown live on Portuguese television.

"We are not afraid of him," was his most outspoken comment, coming in answer to a provocative question about the fear that his team must surely feel in facing the boy wonder, followed by: "Portugal are not afraid of anybody." Declining to talk English, Ronaldo's comments through an interpreter confirmed that he has assimilated the blandest Manchester United player-speak, in which young men with a microphone in front of them avoid above all saying anything faintly controversial that might bring down the wrath of Sir Alex on their inexperienced heads.

For a long time, every answer about tomorrow's game was prefaced with the phrase "if I play"; the most common word was "respect". Yet there can be little doubt about his starting place, the Portuguese coach Luiz Filipe Scolari having belatedly accepted that he needs all that pace and trickery on one flank to complement Luis Figo's wiles on the other. At the beginning of the tournament it was not like that. Having decided to employ the popular system of one striker and two wide players, Scolari opted for Pauleta ahead of Nuno Gomes as the spearhead, with Figo and Simao Sabrosa behind him.

Pauleta and Simao were both poor - like most of their team-mates - in the ghastly anti-climax of a 2-1 defeat by Greece in the opening match. Ronaldo replaced the latter at half-time, conceding the penalty for the second goal but looking a threat on the left and heading a late consolation. Against Russia, Scolari went with the same system, adding Porto's Deco, who set up the first goal before Ronaldo made the second as a late substitute. Finally, he had earned a starting place for what Scolari had called the "war" against Spain, in which the hosts deservedly prevailed with the United man outstanding.

So the "if I play" amounted to nothing more than politeness. Respect, meanwhile, was being offered to every English player he could think of: "David Beckham is a very good player and I'm proud to wear the number seven shirt that belonged to him. I don't know if I'm going to play but I just hope to win the duel against Gary Neville if I play. Gary and Ashley Cole are both very difficult players, both have great experience and are very quick. I must respect them and also Sol Campbell.

"We have to respect all the team and not just one or two players. We have to respect Rooney, Beckham and Michael Owen, but I don't want to speak about specific players."

On Portugal's transformation from nervous, edgy hosts in awe of the guests to confident owners showing off the estate, he said: "It was a very big change, a radical one. The team is getting better every game. Against Spain we showed our fighting spirit and now we have to do that against England. We watched England against Croatia, a wonderful match, and now we have to study that and see what we have to do."

Ronaldo's credo, smacking very much of the United dressing-room, is "to win my personal challenges". In his impressive initial season at Old Trafford, slowly learning to cut down the party tricks in favour of a more effectively direct approach, he frequently succeeded in reducing full-backs to quivering wrecks, just about managing to kick him if they were quick enough.

"The challenges on him were thigh-high," Ferguson recalled of one game. One of the worst, it has to be admitted, was by the blessed Wayne, in the Premiership at Old Trafford, which many of those present felt merited a red card.

"Yes, I remember that tackle very well," Ronaldo said yesterday, a grimace turning into a rueful smile. "But I don't want to get into a personal fight. Rooney is a wonderful player and we want to respect him."

Sir Alex would be proud of him, and as a proud Scot will be even more so if he twists England's knickers and sends them home tomorrow.

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