Sixteen years ago this Saturday at Euro ’96, Czech Karel Poborsky’s unique lob sunk a Portuguese team about which so much had been expected since winning the World Youth Championships in 1991. Euro 2004 saw both teams felled by the same blunt sword when the Czechs lost to Greece in the semis. In turn, Portugal lost in that tournament’s final, a night when Cristiano Ronaldo shed teenage tears in front of a largely unsympathetic world.
The Czechs’ task this time was not to stop an entire golden generation but Portugal’s one shining star, its golden shot at glory. But stopping Cristiano Ronaldo in fine international form – the best he’s been in since the 2006 World Cup – was simply too much for them.
The time when Ronaldo was rendered peripheral and frustrated by the drudgery of former manager Carlos Queiroz’s tactics is in the past. “You can go ask Queiroz,” was Ronaldo’s tart reply when asked why Portugal played so badly in South Africa. At Euro 2012, manager Paulo Bento has provided him a platform. If Portugal is to mount any challenge for this tournament, it can do so only by getting the best from Ronaldo. Making him feel comfortable, highly valued and not overworked or isolated is key to a sense of well-being from which he – and almost he alone – can provide victory. Bento may publicly shrink from talk of a one-man team, but this was a one-man game that saw Portugal defeat the Czech Republic 1-0 in the quarterfinals.
The Czechs’ aim was to strike when their opponents became frustrated. Ronaldo, though, was truly irrepressible, the quality of his performance wrecking any Czech plan, his work rate as redoubtable as any of theirs, his quality a planet apart, let alone a continent.
Ronaldo’s first touch was a failed feint met with derision from Czech fans. After eight minutes, he flounced at a misplaced pass, for which he was again roundly mocked. He would soon provide Czech fans much to be concerned about. A 25-minute exchange of passes with Joao Moutinho saw Ronaldo shrug off Michal Kadlec using his brawn, but Petr Cech saved the day for his team . A minute later, five defenders surrounded Ronaldo as he powered on to a pass from Moutinho again. Even Ronaldo cannot fly through such numbers. An overhead kick was swiftly attempted, but missed. Then came a free-kick that was hit well enough but flew wide.
The 42nd minute saw Ronaldo pirouette and begin a Portuguese attack, burst out to the right of the area in expectation but then not receive the ball. This time, he did not look quite so annoyed. It was becoming clear that the moment might arrive soon. The momentum was with him. A movement into a more central role than the left-wing thrust position he has played so far during Euro 2012 brought the first half’s moment of near-gold.
As with the overhead kick, the ball arrived via unlikely crossing king, central defender Pepe, but this time Ronaldo controlled the ball, flicked it over his shoulder and rattled Cech’s left-hand post.
The Czech plan had been to attack down Portugal’s left, where Ronaldo was figuratively supposed to be and would be expected to do little defending. Fabio Coentrao, the Real Madrid colleague hardly acclaimed for his defensive attributes, would have to get through an awful amount of work against the hard-running of Petr Jiracek and the overlaps of Theodor Gebre Selassie. However, such an attacking method relied on actual possession of the ball.
The second half saw Ronaldo seize yet tighter control. He hit the right-hand post with a free-kick. By that time, he had resumed his left-wing role, as Bruno Almeida, on for hamstrung Helder Postiga, played at center forward. Ronaldo then linked with Raul Meireles to fire over the goal after making a powerful burst.