Cristiano Ronaldo has quickly gone from flop to top at the European Championship. Quiet against Germany and misfiring against Denmark, Ronaldo subsequently tortured the Dutch and tormented the Czech Republic.
But now is the real test.
Ronaldo (oh, yes, and his teammates) will face the defending Euro and World Cup champion, Spain, in Wednesday’s semifinals in Donetsk, Ukraine, with Spain coach Vicente del Bosque vowing to give the Real Madrid man special attention.
“Up until now, I’m not feeling the pressure of playing against Spain or any other team because this is part of my life,” Ronaldo told UEFA.com. “I’ve already been doing this for more than 10 years, and so I must have become accustomed to it already. I will always have responsibility. But pressure? Not much.”
If Ronaldo leads Portugal to the final against either Germany or Italy and then the title, the world player of the year crown will likely be wrestled away from his major rival at Barcelona, Lionel Messi.
More incentive for him.
What's on the line:
No team has ever won three straight major titles and two consecutive European Championships, so if Spain becomes the first, it adds more weight to the argument that the current – and recent past – team is the best ever. Beating its Iberian neighbor would get Spain closer and be extra special.
For Portugal, it’s an opportunity to land in only a second major final after Euro 2004, when the well-organized Greeks stunned Ronaldo and company in the final in Lisbon.
And you don’t think Ronaldo would like to get the better of Barca’s Gerard Pique, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas?
“It [would be] beautiful for Portugal to be able to reach another final,” Ronaldo said. “It will be difficult but we are only one step away.”
Style and tactics:
We all wait to see whether del Bosque starts a recognized striker. Against France in the quarterfinals, he didn’t, opting for Fabregas. Fabregas’ propensity to drop deep cemented Spain’s possession game in midfield, the type of game that routinely wears down opponents. It’s no coincidence La Roja score so many late goals.
There’s not much guessing involved with Portugal’s team, even if manager Paulo Bento won’t be able to start the same XI for the seventh straight competitive match. With Helder Postiga sidelined due to a thigh injury, Hugo Almeida is expected to fill the void as the lone striker. Ronaldo and Nani, who also has impressed for Portugal, are the two others in an attacking front three.
Players to watch:
For Portugal: Ronaldo, Pepe, Nani
Although Ronaldo is scoreless in three games against Spain, he’s tied for the tournament lead with three goals. “We have to try to deactivate him,” del Bosque told reporters. “He’s an excellent player, and it’s logical there is so much talk about him.” Pepe, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate and a player known for his dirty play, has looked assured in the center of defense. How the Barca brigade would love to stuff him, too. Nani has linked up well with Ronaldo and leads Portugal with 13 chances created at Euro 2012.
For Spain: Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso, Xavi
Arbeloa probably will be Spain’s right back, meaning he’ll be going one-on-one with Ronaldo. Doing so in practice at Real Madrid won’t be the same as in a highly charged fixture. “You cannot stop him for 90 minutes, but it’s a beautiful challenge for me,” Arbeloa told reporters. “I like to be measured against the best players, and this is a great test.” Alonso scored both goals in the quarterfinals, while fellow midfielder Xavi is still waiting to find his top form.
What we can expect:
With the Spanish intent on dominating possession – and they’re usually successful – chances will be at a premium for Portugal; Spain’s shutout streak rests at 299 minutes. Space was plentiful for Ronaldo on the counter against the Netherlands since the Oranje had to attack, and the Czechs were fortunate to advance to the quarterfinals.
Set pieces figure to be vital for Portugal since Ronaldo and Pepe are good in the air, and Almeida is 6-foot-3. Spain, as usual, will look to control the affair by dictating in midfield and passing the opposition to death.
The last time the two teams met, in November 2010, Portugal crushed Spain 4-0. However, that was a friendly. Months earlier at the World Cup, Spain had beaten Portugal 1-0 in a game not as close as the score suggested.
Will fresher legs help Portugal, though? It had two extra days to rest up and prepare for the semifinals, and del Bosque said his side was “drained” after eliminating France.
“The Spanish have commented that having two fewer days’ rest is a disadvantage, but as a professional, I don’t think it’s important,” Ronaldo said.
Spain’s shutout streak to end, but a win nonetheless, 2-1.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.