CRISTIANO Ronaldo did not utter a word in public about Portugal versus Spain on Tuesday, but he was mentioned in virtually every utterance about Wednesday’s Euro 2012 semi-final in Donetsk.
The Portugal captain, usually so keen to promote himself as the figurehead of Paulo Bento’s team, even avoided the pre-match press conference in the Donbass Arena on Tuesday night, leaving the pugnacious coach and Besiktas forward Hugo Almeida to discuss the magnitude of this clash for Iberian bragging rights.
Ronaldo goes into the Euro 2012 semi-final carrying Portuguese hopes on his shoulders, while at the same time being the focal point of Spanish fear, the man Vicente del Bosque’s players must nullify if they are to reach a third successive major final.
Even Diego Maradona, who carried Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, hinted at the Real Madrid forward’s importance to Portugal by claiming, ‘Ronaldo has shown his countrymen that he deserves a statue in Lisbon.’
Spain defender Sergio Ramos, Ronaldo’s team-mate at the Bernabeu, admits that the former Manchester United player is the man the world champions fear the most.
“They’re all hard opponents,” Ramos said. “But Ronaldo is a player who makes the difference at world level.
“He has carried Portugal on his shoulders in their last two games and he will be very difficult to stop.”
There is a tangible sense of trepidation within the Spanish camp about the threat posed by the 27-year-old, whose performances for Real last season helped Jose Mourinho’s team end Barcelona’s domestic dominance, delivering the La Liga title.
Portugal, having never beaten Spain on foreign soil, are now viewed as a genuine threat to Spanish success purely because of one man.
“It’s logical that there is so much talk about Ronaldo.” Del Bosque said.
“He is not only a great player, but he plays in Spain, so that’s obviously a factor. We have to deactivate him.
“But this is going to be one of the most important matches of our lives. It can take us to the final.”
Ronaldo’s Real team-mate, Alvaro Arbeloa, is set to be handed the task of shackling Portugal’s talisman, but the former Liverpool full-back insists he is unfazed by the prospect.
“I will probably speak with him when I see him,” Arbeloa said. “If I’m lucky, the coach will put me alongside him. He is very demanding to play against, but I am confident I can do well.
“You have to be prepared mentally and physically when you play against someone like Ronaldo. He’s one of the best players there is.
”But I like to measure myself against the best in the world and it’s a great challenge for me.” With as many as 12 players from both teams tonight expected to be sourced from Real and Barcelona, the game has taken on an added dimension.
Three of Portugal’s starting line-up — Ronaldo, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão — ply their trade for Real, but Spain’s Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets insists the game will be a purely international affair, with club rivalries put aside.
Busquets said: “This is Spain v Portugal, not Barcelona v Real. Portugal have a style that is very different from ours, but they are still very dangerous.
“All we can do is to nullify them as much as possible and try to impose our style on them.
“Ronaldo is very important and very impressive for them, but we will not change our style for an individual opponent. We will play the way we play, just as we always do.” Portugal can expect local support, however, judging by a Ukrainian journalist’s message to Bento that 95 per cent of Ukraine’s women will be cheering for Ronaldo.
Bento said: “If it was 95 per cent until now, I think Cristiano can win the last five per cent of women if he inspires us to victory.”