Wednesday 22 November 2017

Spain on guard ahead of battle with familiar foe

Andy Brassell

Part of the role of a nation's media during a major championship is often assumed to be providing a generous helping of positivity.

Yet the triumphalism is firmly on hold among the press corps following European champions Spain.

Within minutes of the final whistle in the 2-0 win over France in Saturday's quarter-final, the sports newspaper 'Marca' wrote with some trepidation that "when Cristiano gets into a good run, he's unstoppable".

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is the most visible player at Euro 2012 and he has been propelled into the spotlight, in part, by a Real Madrid culture that in recent years has put the star individual on a pedestal.

The forward has had an astonishing three seasons in Madrid in which he has scored 146 goals at a rate of more than one per game.

Vicente del Bosque's Spanish XI for tonight's semi-final in Donetsk is likely to feature four players with whom Ronaldo shares a club dressing-room. Yet as 'Marca' wrote, knowing him and stopping him are two different things.

"Our (attacking) weapons aren't a secret," Portugal midfielder Custodio said this week. "Everybody knows Cristiano and his qualities. He's the most complete player I know, both physically and technically."

More and more Spanish journalists have arrived at Portugal's rural training base in the Polish town of Opalenica this week, the Madrid-based correspondents joined by more who realise that a player who astounds Spain on a weekly basis now poses a genuine threat to their hold on the European title.

If the Spaniards are looking for clues as to how Portugal will approach the semi-final, however, they might be disappointed.

As Custodio said, the secret is that there is no secret. "Hard work" is how Ronaldo described the recipe of Portugal's success, an echo of the no-frills approach of coach Paulo Bento.

It is something that Ronaldo has personified in every training session after he attracted widespread criticism for a series of misses against Denmark, and it is paying off.

"I knew the goals would come," said Ronaldo. Those who have persisted in labelling Ronaldo as a ducker of big matches are being forced to change their tune.

Three goals, against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, have followed neatly on from three in the last three Clasicos of the Spanish season.

Return

His winner against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in April all but sealed the return of the La Liga title to the Bernabeu for the first time since 2008.

The semi-final has more than a hint of the Clasico about it.

On Sunday, Portugal right-back Joao Pereira had not been addressing a press conference for more than a few minutes when he proclaimed: "It's going to be the Iberian derby, and a great game of football."

It might be assumed that the gap between Portugal and Spain is a little wider than that which separates the two biggest rivals in the latter's domestic competition, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Still, as somebody who has always set himself steep targets, Ronaldo is revelling in the accustomed role of underdog.

"We weren't favourites before the tournament started, and we're not favourites now," he said.

It helps to stick to a theme that has fostered togetherness in the squad. In the beginning only the Portugal players believed they had a chance, as the country's media fretted over unconvincing performances in pre-tournament friendlies. A group of players who are naturally close, and pleased to see each other after seasons in leagues across Europe, have had the genuine sense of embarking on an adventure.

"It's great to see so many friends, and for us to be together, always speaking Portuguese," said Ronaldo in his first few days after joining the squad, prior to their departure for Poland.

While this is Portugal's third European Championship semi-final in the last four tournaments, the players look upon the challenge with fresh eyes. Few bear the scars of Euro 2004's heartbreaking near miss, when Greece shocked the world by beating the hosts in the final.

Ronaldo is Portugal's only survivor from the match against Spain in that tournament, when Nuno Gomes' second-half goal gave Portugal their only competitive win over their neighbours.

La Furia Roja may be a vastly different beast now, but Ronaldo is different too. The teenager who wept on the Estadio da Luz pitch after the defeat by Greece is now a man, albeit one with a burning desire to right that wrong.

Outstanding midfielder Joao Moutinho is just one of a number of Portugal players to describe Ronaldo as "a great friend and a great leader" since the squad arrived in Poland.

Ronaldo's detractors laughed as he swore and threw his arms up after a misplaced Helder Postiga pass in the quarter-final against the Czechs. For Portugal, this is merely evidence of his exactingly high standards.

Spain need no convincing of his worth either. They just hope forewarned is forearmed. (© Independent News Service)

Portugal v Spain,

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