Andy Brassell previews the Group F team
Time waits for no man. Not even a superman like Cristiano Ronaldo who, having turned 31 in February, is running out of chances to snare a trophy with Portugal.
That he has already become the nation’s record goalscorer and been part of more successful Seleção line-ups than Eusébio or Luis Figo will come as little consolation to the Real Madrid forward should he not manage to break that duck in the next few years.
The European Championship has been the stage for Ronaldo’s most agonising near misses - in his career, you could argue, rather than just with Portugal. In 2004, the teenager wept on the Estadio da Luz pitch as Greece pulled off the most improbable of tournament wins in the hosts’ backyard. Eight years later, Ronaldo’s disappointment was restricted to head-shaking and shrugs; he didn’t even get his turn in the semi-final penalty shootout with Spain in Donetsk, when misses from João Moutinho’s and Bruno Alves allowed Cesc Fàbregas to clinch it before Portugal’s fifth taker could step up.
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo cries at the final whistle at Euro 2004. Picture by: Mike Egerton / EMPICS Sport
Relying on a good supporting cast is inevitably going to become more of a theme. Those who claimed – especially in the season’s first few months – that Ronaldo is on the decline are mistaken, but there has been plenty of evidence that we are seeing a gentle evolution in his game. We have to get used to seeing less of that trademark explosiveness on the left, and more of a penalty box player emerging. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, given his unforgiving streak in front of goal and his mastery of the aerial game.
Coach Fernando Santos has developed a reputation for an attritional approach – and not without reason, given that Portugal scored just 11 goals in eight games, topping their group – but while Carlos Queiroz’s safety-first tactics in the 2010 World Cup left Ronaldo isolated, the current boss has a system that plays to his star’s strengths.
Portugal are likely to line up in a 4-4-2 or a variant of it, which requires far less running for Ronaldo when out of possession than a 4-3-3. Santos has also blended experienced campaigners like Ricardo Carvalho and Ronaldo’s clubmate Pepe with younger stars such as João Mário and Adrien Silva from Sporting, who can make the running in midfield. Portugal looked sluggish in Brazil in 2014, but newer legs in the centre of the park should avoid a repeat of that.
On the bench, Bayern Munich-bound teenager Renato Sanches and Valencia playmaker Andre Gomes can provide added impetus and guile. Both made good contributions in the 7-0 demolition of Estonia, with Sanches’ power and energy as a substitute a role he could reprise in France.
Renato Sanches, Portugal. Picture by: Mike Egerton / PA Archive/Press Association Images
There is, though, a greater sense than ever that Ronaldo needs to be cherished and protected. Since the end of April and his absence from the Champions League semi-final first leg against Manchester City, which was accompanied by widespread reports in Portugal that he would be forced to sit out for 20 days, there has been concern about Ronaldo’s fitness. Much of it has been founded on a sense of déjà vu.
There are many parallels between now and two years ago, with Portugal entering a major championship with a below-his-best Ronaldo having struggled through a Champions League final (despite having emerged victorious in both, both times against Atlético Madrid). The last thing any Seleção follower wants is a repeat of the World Cup, when their clearly unfit skipper fought against nature in a vain attempt to lift his leaden side.
It’s worth making a distinction here, though; Ronaldo did run out of gas in this year’s final in Milan, but he looked short of peak match fitness, rather than hobbled. Hopefully for his and for Portugal’s sake, a week in the sun with his pals in Ibiza will have done the trick.
Santos’ shake-up of the squad could yet prove to be the best medicine for him after an arduous season. The recent friendly win over Norway came with several caveats, not least the rather ordinary quality of the opposition, but Gomes, Ricardo Quaresma (who scored before later netting twice against Estonia), young Raphaël Guerreiro and company showed plenty of confidence and enterprise in Ronaldo’s absence. Just the sort of drive, in fact, that the squad so lacked in Brazil.
We should expect Ronaldo’s transformation into a poacher to continue – that is, after all, how he will prolong his career. The good news for Portugal is he appears to have an able, increasingly younger cast to help him on the way. Sanches, for example, might not be the key to unlock the captain’s best this time in France, but he will be even more important in the next World Cup in Russia. With the right support, there is plenty of life in Ronaldo’s international career yet.