Feeding Ronaldo is key to success for Bento

Published 07/06/2012 | 08:58

MANCHEstEr UNItED wINGEr NANI (rIGHt) POsEs A GrEAt tHrEAt FOr POrtuGAL

PORTUGAL have been mainstays of the European Championship in recent tournaments, reaching at least the quarterfinals in each of the last four competitions, but they left it late before booking their ticket for this summer's event and few have the confidence that a first senior trophy will be forthcoming in Poland and Ukraine.

A resounding 6-2 play-off success over a dangerous Bosnia side eventually got Portugal over the finishing line but they looked a long way short of being contenders early on when opening up with a 4-4 home draw with Cyprus and a 1-0 loss in Norway.

Those results saw Carlos Queiroz get the boot and replacement Paulo Bento has at least steadied the ship somewhat, with a poor performance in 2-1 defeat in Denmark, the only blemish on the former Sporting manager's record since he took control.

The key for Bento and Portugal is to get the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has arguably been the best player in the world this season.

He is certainly the closest anyone can get to Lionel Messi and Ronaldo played such a crucial role in securing the La Liga title for Real Madrid with 46 goals in Spain's top flight.

Questions have always been asked of Ronaldo and whether he can do it at the very highest level and a missed penalty in the Champions League semifinals shootout defeat to Bayern Munich saw yet more unjustified criticism fly his way. Ronaldo had already scored twice in normal time, notched the winner which effectively wrapped up the title at Barcelona and bagged three in a crucial derby success over Atletico to prove the doubters wrong again.

Now the people of Portugal want to see him light up an international tournament and the pressure on the Real Madrid superstar is ridiculous. He scored seven times in just eight qualifiers and Bento, a former team-mate of Ronaldo, seems as likely as anyone to encourage yet more match-winning individual performances.

The problem is that Ronaldo had Paul Scholes finding him at Manchester United and at Real Madrid Xabi Alonso or Mesut Ozil can pick out a pass but Portugal don't have that luxury since the delightful Rui Costa and Deco hung up their international boots.

That's why so many in Portugal wanted Braga's Hugo Viana involved to set up play in the style of Italy's Andrea Pirlo, but Bento prefers to play at a quicker tempo so Raul Meireles, Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso will be those chosen even if the Braga playmaker was belatedly called up.

It will be down to Ronaldo or Nani for goals because Helder Postiga has never been good enough despite a decent strike-rate at international level and this is probably a tournament too soon for 20-year-old Nelson Oliveira, who has unquestionable potential but failed to score a league goal for Benfica in the 2011-12 campaign.

Defensively Portugal are pretty strong. Spain, in a 1-0 defeat in the last 16, were the only team to score against them at the 2010 World Cup and opposition strikers are likely to get no change from brutal defenders Pepe and Bruno Alves.

Fabio Coentrao didn't always show his best at Real Madrid but is a top-class marauding left-back and if Ronaldo shines then Bento's boys have a chance of causing a major upset.

However, as always for Portugal punters, it is Ronaldo or bust.

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