On the face of it, Cristiano Ronaldo’s importance to Portugal should be clear. Three straight Champions League winners medals. Six straight Golden Boots in Europe’s top competition. As a five time Ballon d’Or winner and reigning European champion on both the club and international fronts, he’s almost in a league of his own.
However, that success has come to a very different kind of player in recent years. He was a walking bag of tricks in 2004, and a pacey winger in his mid-20s. The 33-year-old is now an out and out striker for club and country. Lately he’s cut out the dribbling and focused his efforts in attack. That has changed his role for a defensively minded Portugal side. So, just how does Ronaldo fit in to this side?
For all the self-publicity and arrogance, you’d be forgiven for seeing Ronaldo as someone who has cruised towards his current level. However, the forward has dedicated himself to staying at the top. He’s managed to stay at peak fitness – recently claiming to have the body of a 23-year-old. He’s certainly showing no signs of slowing down, with a new Real Madrid contract on the way.
The Portuguese captain also sets standards on the pitch. He’s the country’s most capped player – with 149 appearances. He’s also their top scorer, with 81 goals to his name. With a player performing like that at the spearhead of the side, the rest of the squad have a high bar to reach.
The Cantona Role
Ronaldo does have something in common with fellow Man United number seven Eric Cantona. The Frenchman’s later years at Old Trafford saw him lead a youthful Red Devils outfit from the front, and that’s what Ronaldo is doing for Portugal.
The Real Madrid forward’s greatest issue on the international stage has been timing. He broke through in 2003, meaning he’s preparing for a ninth international tournament. However, his time with Portugal has come between two generations. He broke through at the tail end of the golden generation, as Rui Costa and Luis Figo were declining.
Portugal’s standards dipped with them, but in recent years the side have picked up. Euro 2016 saw a youthful edge to Portugal, and since then even more new names have joined. Ronaldo is now the elder statesman of the group. He made that clear during the Euro 2016 final in Paris, as he got animated on the touchline after going off injured.
While Portugal have welcomed new stars in to the fold in recent years, they’re not matching the likes of Spain and Germany. Manager Fernando Santos certainly recognised that. He took a safety first approach with Portugal at Euro 2016, as they drew six of their seven matches in France. The style worked, as they kept three clean sheets in four knockout games on their way to winning the tournament.
Portugal stuck with a 4-4-2 throughout their run in France. That left Ronaldo as a number nine, supported by Nani who did the hard yards up top. While we can’t take credit away from the Real Madrid man, he was isolated at times with that approach.
Ronaldo struck three goals across that tournament. Two of those came in a group meeting with Hungary, which Portugal approached thinking that it was a must win game, which ultimately finished 3-3. Portugal were let off the leash by Santos in just that game, barring small sections of the semi-final meeting with Wales. Their captain also struck in that clash with the Dragons.
While this doesn’t take away from his importance to the team, Ronaldo isn’t as involved in the play. Portugal are far from a one man team, as they’ve actually sacrificed their star man for success. The former United player did hit 15 goals in qualifying, but it’ll be interesting to see if he’s given the same freedom this summer.
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Still Key for Santos
While Ronaldo isn’t going to dominate a game for Portugal now, Santos will still needs him on the pitch. The manager took over following the 2014 World Cup. He is unbeaten in all but two competitive games in that spell. Both of those losses were matches which Ronaldo didn’t feature in. The last of those was a trip to Switzerland in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. After losing the opening qualifier without Ronaldo, Portugal won the next nine matches. Ronaldo featured in all of them, and scored in seven of them. Should Portugal lose him this summer, then they’re unlikely to go too far.
Underwhelming World Cup Record
Ronaldo’s three goals throughout the Euro 2016 campaign wasn’t huge, but it matched his entire World Cup haul to date. With 13 appearances between the 2006, 2010 and 2014 editions, he has underperformed with just three goals. Each of those strikes came in a different tournament, so it’s fair to say that he has yet to light up a World Cup.
Ronaldo’s goals came against Iran in 2006, North Korea in 2010 and Ghana in 2014. You should probably hold off against backing him for the Golden Boot this summer. On the other hand, he can become just the fourth player to score at four World Cup finals. As the only man to achieve the feat at four European championships, he’s showing impressive consistency, just not enough lasting impact at a World Cup.
Where Does that Leave Ronaldo?
It’s impossible to write off Ronaldo, who has shown what he can do yet again this season. People are very quick to claim that he’s declining, but he is heading for another Ballon d’Or after his Champions League displays.
Ronaldo will start the campaign up front, as a crucial leader to this Portugal side. He’ll be a guide to his young strike partner Andre Silva, who is a future star. Tactically, Ronaldo will be more of an outlet for this team, rather than the heartbeat of it. The opener with Spain is likely to leave him isolated at times, but him being on the pitch improves their chances.
Many will rush to write him off if he starts slowly. However, Portugal’s hopes rest on Ronaldo’s presence. Even if he can’t haul his country all the way like Maradona, he has managed to win four European titles in 24 months. His thirst for silverware has spanned well over a decade, and now Portugal’s most successful player is gunning for the biggest trophy he’s yet to lift. He’ll happily play the lonely forward role to end that wait.
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