Cristiano Ronaldo seizes spotlight to provide Portugal’s killer instinct

Captain showed a few rare cracks of rust before scoring twice in the final stages to seal victory

Tom Kershaw@trlkershaw
Tuesday 15 June 2021 19:13
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Euro 2020: Daily briefing

It took all of five minutes of Portugal’s Euro 2020 campaign for Cristiano Ronaldo to exhibit his trademark repertoire of dismay. Standing unmarked on the edge of the box, with Hungary’s goal beckoning, Diogo Jota failed to obey protocol and instead fizzed a shot towards the far post. What followed amounted to a sight no less familiar than Ronaldo’s famed goal celebration: a scream of indignation, an accusatory look towards the Gods and then back to his own feet, wondering how the connection between heaven and turf had been broken.

It might have been the earliest foray of the defending champions’ 3-0 victory against Hungary, but it betrayed a sense of their own transition in the past four years, too. Whereas Ronaldo’s teammates once dutifully bowed to his aura, Portugal’s squad now boasts perhaps the finest attacking quartet on display at the Euros this summer, with Jota and Bernardo Silva flanking the equally hot-blooded Bruno Fernandes. It is a mountain of talent upon which Ronaldo sits in a deified role, one that affords him a certain sense of luxury thanks to the strength of its foundations.

But if this win taught us anything, it was that even with such a dizzying frontline, Ronaldo’s influence is in no danger of shrinking. In front of a raucous full capacity crowd of 61,000 supporters in Budapest, who charged their team with a blood and guts desire to defend, his early rust appeared to dictate the surroundings. Portugal weaved dominant patterns, waltzed into open space and probed relentlessly towards goal. But for all their superior quality - one that outweighs even their victorious side of 2016 - a final stroke of conviction was clearly lacking.

Historically, it is the baseline Ronaldo has always guaranteed, his killer instinct a cold sword to the unpredictable nature of tournament football. At 36, he is defying age’s confines, but a few errant skills were met by a wall of jeers and a golden opportunity was flashed over the bar from six yards out. It was a rare, inexplicable aberration and, as Portugal failed to break the deadlock, a seemingly simple task took on the nerves of those chances spurned.

In such a difficult group, with fixtures against France and Germany still to come, they are the fine margins that may decide Portugal’s fate this summer. Others attempted to step up to the plate, with Fernandes seizing hold in the second half and forcing Peter Gulacsi into a fine fingertip save. But for all Portugal’s abundance of quality, they appeared to lack some imagination, particularly as the minutes wore on and Hungary sniffed hope of an unlikely victory. The smooth rhythms of their attack fell out of kilter, Pepe descended into a typical fit of pique, and utter panic rippled as Szabolcs Schön’s shot slipped through Rui Patricio’s arms, only for the linesman to bring down his flag and a flurry of relief.

Even when Hungary’s resistance finally crumbled but it was not by virtue of any one-handed heroics but the most fortuitous of deflections, with Raphaël Guerreiro’s shot flicking into the far corner. It was a deserved reward for Portugal’s pressure, but one that certainly required far more strength than they’d expected to summon.

If anything, then, it felt like something of a divine right that no sooner had victory been secured that it made way for Ronaldo’s grand stage. First, just moments after the goal, Rafa Silva was brought down in the box and Ronaldo fired home the penalty spot to become the highest all-time goalscorer in Euros history. Just two minutes later, he scored his 106th at international level, a flicker of footsteps capping a wonderful team move.

The greatest players, no matter how their powers may wane, have a way of warping the spotlight to their will. For almost 90 minutes in Budapest, Ronaldo seemed to blink ever so slightly in its glare. And yet, these three points will pale in value when compared to the confidence gleaned from his two goals. In a scoreline that flattered Portugal’s performance, their figurehead ignited his killer instinct and swapped flapping arms for the signature celebration that’s so often been written into history. As Euro 2020 plays out, as sides steeped in quality search for an edge, no weapon will quite match the flair and frustration of Ronaldo in full pomp.

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