Team’s flaws exposed once Ronaldo misfires
Portugal 0 Austria 0
Published 20/06/2016 | 02:30
A group of four players formed a protective phalanx around Cristiano Ronaldo as he marched out of the Parc des Princes late on Saturday night, eyes fixed intently ahead on the exit.
Luis Nani, one in that number, was asked if he had a few words for the reporters and he gestured, quite apologetically, back to the Portuguese team's press officer, indicating she was in charge rather than engage in that footballer act of pretending not to hear.
The Ronaldo formation was on the move, in full propulsion, though. None of his wing men was going to be allowed to break out for a chat.
Such was the story of Portugal as they added a stalemate with Austria to their draw against Iceland and left themselves probably needing a win over Hungary in Lyon on Wednesday if they are to avoid the ignominy of failing to qualify from the easiest group.
There was only fleeting self-expression from the side's artisans.
Ronaldo is the creative nexus of his side to an extent way beyond any other player in any other side at this tournament and that doesn't always help.
In theory, at least, it makes the strategy for playing Portugal uncomplicated. Get at Ronaldo and the rest will take care of itself.
If there is a flaw to scratch away at, it is that the player lives the experience so much in the raw: screaming, smiling, all-but crying when the penalty he was awarded in the 78th minute slammed against the base of the left-hand post.
Nani ran up and tried to provide some succour in that moment, offering him a hand-slapping gesture. Ronaldo pushed him away.
The cameras trace each ironic smile, grimace and supplication to such an extent that he is the play within the play - or, rather, the match is the play within his play.
Has a player ever been so aware that the stage is his? No, and that explains the collective mirth of millions the world over when the penalty was miscued and time ran out on him in south-west Paris.
Of course, the sniggers belie an inconvenient truth: that to see Saturday night's protagonist at work was akin to a night at the opera; an experience of mesmerising, captivating drama. Here was a goalless draw to take your breath away.
The Austrians shared the laughs, self-evidently. They had a plan for Ronaldo. His gathering fury on the pitch as it paid a dividend delighted them.
"That was our target, keep him away from our goal - to make him frustrated," said Austria's Watford defender Sebastian Prodl.
"I don't know about his emotion but getting him out of the dangerous zones so if he is getting frustrated because of this we did our job."
The strategy was to narrow the lines between defence and midfield, reducing the space Ronaldo had to operate within.
"We had a great tactic, we kept our lines," said Prodl.
"We have got very good centre midfield players who made a lot of moves against [him] with the lines, so I think our tactics were good, and at times we were a little bit lucky but yeah - we should take confidence from the game."
The squeezing of space also entailed midfielders dropping deep to compress any available pockets.
"They drop deep when needed because Ronaldo is always finding some space for himself to create some chances," the defender said of his midfield team-mates.
"So he always was looking for the gaps and our defence was closing very well, in all parts of the game, they got some chances with crosses, with shots from 25 metres, through balls. But they never had many chances in my opinion. So we did our job."
It was Prodl's first experience of playing against Ronaldo and he reflected: "I didn't get into trouble with him, when he played one-against-one.
"I think he was a little bit disappointed because he didn't get the balls in his position as a striker so he was dropping to get balls, to get shots, and in the end, of course, he missed the penalty.
"It's not that often he misses a penalty but I'm happy about it and all Austria is happy about it."
Austria's ambition was negligible. Several of their players emerged to speak of their final match, against Iceland in Paris on Wednesday, as their "cup final".
The aim in this match was to defend for their lives and see what next week holds.
Despite rugby-tackling the game's star to the floor for the penalty, when Ronaldo finally got a run on him, Martin Hinteregger was part of an outstanding defensive unit for Austria, in which goalkeeper Robert Almer was the supreme performer.
Almer's discussion of his own performance revealed how, by the law unintended consequences, Ronaldo's role can affect the performances of opposition players as well as his own.
The goalkeeper's confidence was strengthened by a realisation that he could keep the tournament's most prestigious player out.
"It's always an extra motivation when you know you will be playing against someone like him," Almer said.
"I can see him getting frustrated but I don't really get strength from that. I was just so focused on my game but maybe it helped me a little bit with the penalty that he didn't score."
It is difficult to foresee England, who may quite conceivably meet Portugal in the knock-out rounds, seeing out 90 minutes against Ronaldo in this way.
The Portugal full-back Cedric Soares, of Southampton, philosophised that "sometimes the ball doesn't go in; it happens in football", and that Ronaldo "is the best in the world so I am sure the next game he will be better".
Well, it is incumbent on those around him to be "better" and shape the course of the game if Portugal's journey is to last deep into the tournament.
The legend on the side of the Portugal team bus tells of: "Uma equips. Uma paixao. 11 milhoes no coracao" ('A team. An obsession, carried in the hearts of 11 million.')
With the emphasis on 'equipa'. One individual did not win a tournament alone, even one for whom the stage is a virtually a personal possession.
"The bad won't last forever," the man himself reflected. "So we need to believe that things will go better."