Portugal spare Ronaldo’s blushes
Rewind six weeks, and in Madrid, inside the bowels of the Santiago Bernabeu at half time, Cristiano Ronaldo must have taken his seat inside the Real Madrid changing room and felt at ease. He had just scored two crucial goals for his club side which left them in a strong position to qualify for the Champions League final. Just a few days previous, he had silenced and vanquished his demons at the Camp Nou, scoring a sumptuous and significant winning goal against Barcelona to all but secure the La Liga title. Ronaldo was performing in the biggest of games and proving claims he was a big game flop completely wrong. And then it all went horribly wrong; first, Ronaldo missed his penalty in the subsequent shoot-out, his third penalty miss in the latter stages of the Champions League, and Madrid were sent crashing out. Ronaldo escaped castigation, as Ricardo Kaka went on to miss that night and Sergio Ramos cleared the crossbar. After all, Ronaldo’s heroics couldn’t keep coming forever, he’d done his bit.
And then came yesterday’s game in Lviv, where Portugal scraped past Denmark to win 3-2 and kept their fate in their own hands. The late winner resulted in a Portuguese pile-up, manager Paolo Bento punched the air and the fans roared with relief, but Ronaldo merely sighed, relieved, his blushes spared. Portugal began the game on the front foot, pressing Denmark at every opportunity and forcing the Danes into mistakes, who looked to use Dennis Rommedahl as an outlet down their right side. Portugal persisted in rescuing possession before their two centre backs lumped the ball long, expecting big strong men such as themselves to feed off the direct approach; instead Helder Postiga was continually swamped by the imposing centre back pairing of Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer. The long ball tactics appeared deliberate and mystifying, as Portugal’s strengths lie on their flanks and in midfield where they have talent in abundance, yet Bento appears to neglect those avenues for a more simplistic approach.
Eventually, Pepe did find himself in the box and headed home at the near post from a Moutinho corner, and Portugal became to settle, as Ronaldo moved centrally and began to demand and use the ball well. Postiga then doubled the lead, expertly turning Nani’s cross into the roof of the net. Denmark, void of ideas or inspiration, were on the back foot, but when Portugal’s increasingly suspect right back, Joao Pereira, contrived to lose the dangerous Krohn-Delhi on the end of a looping cross, the Danish attacker found himself in plenty of space, with a simple headed pass across goal to Nicklas Bentnder well executed, allowing the Arsenal forward to head home into an open goal.
The goal came from nothing and the second half continued in much the same way, with Denmark quiet and Portugal efficient, fashioning chances here and there. Nani, who was impressive on the day, created most of Portugal’s better openings and was increasingly more influential than the more senior Ronaldo. But Ronaldo’s moment would come; Nani, once again the creator, weighted a through ball into the #7′s path, and it would surely be a goal. Ronaldo, keeper, net, one on one – we all know the deal. Ronaldo should have rounded the on rushing keeper and tapped into an empty net. Failing that, a right footed finish would have sufficed, but challenging himself, Ronaldo took the shot on his left foot, with still no excuse not to score. Eventually, Ronaldo served up a tame, awkward shot off his left side and dragged the ball wide, well wide. Miss. He could hardly believe it and his disappointment turned to disgust moments later, when Nicklas Bendtner scored a powerful header, towering over Pepe to power the ball into the back of the net to equalise. Ronaldo cursed, knowing that he should have ended the game just a few seconds previously, but he had frozen.
The flying winger set out to make amends and immediately drew a foul, shooting tamely from the resulting free kick. It had all gone wrong for Ronaldo. Not for Portugal though, who fought on, as Varela spun and lashed home an all important winner which means that Portugal’s fate rests in their own hands going into the weekend against the spiralling Dutch. Yet whether the shoulders of Ronaldo can bear this burden remains to be seen. Ronaldo had bottled it, again. Whether Ronaldo really is a big game flop is debatable, as the evidence suggests that he probably is not, just that he blows hot and cold, but increasingly, it has to be said that in times of absolute need, Ronaldo goes missing. A goal today against Denmark would not have silenced the critics; after all, Denmark are not top notch opposition. It is not the opposition which matters, but the stage, and on this worldwide stage, when Ronaldo’s first and truest opportunity of the tournament came around, he fluffed his lines. Just as he did six weeks ago in Madrid. The task was simple then, a penalty kick which he has executed countless times (actually, 26 in a row, until that one), and simpler yet yesterday, a textbook one-on-one, and somehow on both occasions, Ronaldo managed to get it wrong. You wonder whether that would have been the case if both scenarios occurred when Ronaldo’s side were well ahead in the game.
Luckily for Ronaldo, a man of great mental strength and endless confidence, the chance to redeem himself comes this weekend in a crucial and decisive game against the Netherlands, where he will likely face-off against another man in a similar frame of mind, Arjen Robben. On this day however, Ronaldo was reprieved, let off, rescued by his team-mates, but it is clear that come Sunday evening, they will need an in-form Ronaldo, and so too does his reputation.