KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Were the Dutch fans decked out in their habitual orange not paying attention? When Portugal beat Denmark 3-2 on Wednesday at the European Championships, it was in spite of Cristiano Ronaldo, not because of him.
Chants of “Messi” reverberated around the Arena Lviv, and Ronaldo proceeded to squander two gilt-edged chances to put the resilient Danes away with thoughts of his great rival from Barcelona perhaps in his head. Ronaldo took a shot at Messi postgame, which did him no good.
There were no chants of “Messi” in Kharkiv on Sunday, and a Ronaldo with something to prove did just that, putting in a man-of-the-match display that ended with two goals in a 2-1 win and sent Portugal into the quarterfinals against the modest Czech Republic.
On another night, Ronaldo could have had four goals and an assist, such was the dominance of his display in a game where the Dutch had to attack – and thus left space in midfield and defense for a grateful Ronaldo to exploit.
But afterward in a news conference, receiving the man-of-the-match award, he hardly wanted to talk about himself. The criticism he received for his profligacy against Denmark and comments aimed at Messi rendered him robotic.
“We scored as a team,” Ronaldo, who netted his 34th international goal to pass Portuguese legend Luis Figo, said. “Now everything is possible, but we have a difficult game against the Czechs.”
Portugal manager Paulo Bento didn’t want to discuss Ronaldo, either, sticking to his approach. He rarely singles out individual players for praise – or criticism.
When the subject of why Ronaldo can’t match his club output in a Portugal shirt arose, Bento became annoyed. Entering the encounter, Ronaldo had scored three goals in his past 15 games at the European Championships and World Cup. “Well, that is an issue that was already talked about so much, about the efforts of players in their clubs and then in the international team,” he said. “We have discussed that sufficiently.”
Later, when asked to comment specifically about Ronaldo’s performance against the Dutch, he became more annoyed, although he misinterpreted the query.
“I already answered that question,” Bento said. “I cannot judge the effort of players within their clubs. I’ll talk about what they do here.”
He never did.
No one said it, but suffice to say Ronaldo was near his best. He excelled against a young right back, Gregory van der Wiel, whose errant back pass allowed Portugal to get into the game after Rafael van der Vaart’s stunning opener in the 11th minute had the Portuguese rocking.
In his defense, van der Wiel didn’t receive any help from his midfielders. Rafael van der Vaart had to be included, since the Netherlands needed to win by at least two goals to have any chance of advancing from the Group of Death, and holding midfielder Mark van Bommel made way. The cover wasn’t there.
The finish lacking against Denmark was reversed in the 28th minute, when Ronaldo timed his run to perfection, converting right back Joao Pereira’s pinpoint through ball.
The Netherlands wilted, and Ronaldo ended any hopes of a revival by catching them on the break in the 74th minute. Rafael van der Vaart, who scored his team’s only goal in the 11th minute, was stripped of possession near the Portugal box, leading to a stunning counterattack.
“Today [Ronaldo] was decisive so things can change very fast,” said Netherlands manager Bert van Marwijk, referring to the negativity surrounding Ronaldo before the game.
Van Marwijk knew inserting van der Vaart into the lineup was a gamble he had to take. As it turned out, a two-goal victory would have been enough to progress, given Germany edged Denmark 2-1.
“I did say before that this was a special situation,” van Marwijk said. “We knew we had to win with a two-goal difference and we had to take the risk. At the start it went well, but after it didn’t.”
So the Dutch, tabbed as one of the three top contenders at Euro 2012, went an embarrassing 0-3.
Portugal, meanwhile, will fancy its matchup with the Czechs, and it seems Ronaldo will be content to do most of his talking on the pitch.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.