Wednesday 15 August 2018

Ronaldo is still pivotal to Portugal side battling Father Time

Superstar needs defenders to shine as he chases big prize

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Guerreiro during yesterday’s training session in Moscow. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Guerreiro during yesterday’s training session in Moscow. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Sam Dean

It is said that success breeds success, but it is a reality of football that it also creates expectation.

So it is for Portugal, who arrive in Russia with European Championship medals hanging from their necks and an unfamiliar burden weighing on their shoulders.

"We have a big responsibility," says Jose Fonte, one of a trio of veteran defenders in the Portuguese squad. "We are expected to win everything now. People are demanding. But it is good - we accept that responsibility."

Accept it, bear it, perhaps even embrace it. The question, though, will be whether Portugal have enough quality to deliver on these heightened expectations and cement their status as one of international football's most prestigious teams.

The form book would suggest not. Fernando Santos' side have won just twice in their last six games - against Algeria and Egypt - and in March were thrashed 3-0 by one of the worst Holland teams in modern history. They remain functional rather than thrilling, and they come into this tournament with major concerns over their defence, where Father Time has robbed key figures of their physical verve.

Still, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. An emerging generation of young forwards has given Portugal's attack an air of vibrancy and excitement, while the development of Bernardo Silva at Manchester City provides creative cunning in midfield.

Jose Fonte says Portugal haven’t changed much since 2016. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images
Jose Fonte says Portugal haven’t changed much since 2016. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

And then there is Cristiano Ronaldo, glistening up front like the polished prow of Europe's most pristine warship. Ever conscious of his own standing within the game, Portugal's captain will know that a World Cup victory, to go with all those medals he has picked up with Real Madrid, would elevate him to a new level of stardom. If things go his way, an all-time great could leave Russia with a legitimate claim to being the greatest of all time.

Twinkling

Ronaldo's game has changed again in the last two years, since he scored three and assisted three at Euro 2016, and this will surely be his final World Cup. Those twinkling feet lack their youthful sparkle; those bulging thighs have lost the old horsepower. But he is as merciless as ever in front of goal (he scored 15 goals in nine World Cup qualifiers) and is so feared by defenders that he can shape a game through his personality alone.

"He makes all the difference," Fonte said. "When you have the best player in the world in your team, it is automatic. Immediately, the other team is more scared. They have doubts in their mind - 'Should I go, should I not go' - and he can create that just with his presence on the pitch."

Ronaldo may be the most egregious egotist in football, a man so self-regarding that he recently celebrated the birth of his third child in three months by calling it "another record", but there can be no denying his importance as a leader on the pitch.

Just ask Joao Moutinho, the central midfielder, who had attempted to relieve himself of penalty-taking duties during their quarter-final shoot-out against Poland at Euro 2016. Upon learning the news, it was a wide-eyed Ronaldo, rather than Santos, who cajoled Moutinho back to confidence.

"Hey! Hey! Come kick! Come! You hit them well," Ronaldo urged him. "If we lose, f*** it! Be strong! Come on!" It barely needs saying that Moutinho slotted his penalty into the corner.

Ronaldo, now 33, is likely to be joined in attack by AC Milan's Andre Silva, although the impressive pre-tournament form of Goncalo Guedes, who spent last season on loan from Paris Saint-Germain to Valencia, may prompt a late rethink.

Whoever partners Ronaldo will operate in front of Bernardo Silva, the diminutive schemer who has become such a popular figure at Manchester City. Under the guidance of the adoring Pep Guardiola, the 23-year-old has grown in stature and confidence since joining from Monaco last summer.

"He [Guardiola] has changed my game," Bernardo Silva said. "I am a better player than I was a year ago. And it's not only Pep - it's all the players, all the staff. It was a pleasure to be with them. I feel very confident, especially because the second half of the season was very good for me. I am ready."

Portugal need to be ready early. Unlike in France two years ago, when their opening game was against Iceland, there will be no time to find their feet in Russia. First up are the formidable Spain, and Portugal know that the opening result will shape the tone of their tournament. "We see it as a final," Fonte says.

For all their attacking pedigree, it may be the defence which determines Portugal's hopes. So solid at the European Championships, the centre-halves are now creaking towards the end of their careers. Between them, Fonte, Pepe and Bruno Alves have a combined age of 105.

Fonte, 34, left West Ham United for China in February after struggling to cope with Premier League football, while Alves, 36, has played only eight games for Rangers in 2018. The more youthful option to partner Pepe is Benfica's Ruben Dias, but the 21-year-old only made his first international appearance last month.

"I don't think we have changed much," says Fonte. "We still have the same manager as in 2016, and the majority of the players. We have a lot of young players in the squad, but the only area you have old players is at centre-back. The new generation will come, but age is just a number. Pepe is still a quality player, Alves is a quality player. It's nothing. I can't see a problem."

A curious sub-plot to Portugal's preparations over the last few weeks has been the remarkable situation unfolding at Sporting Lisbon, where Russia-bound Rui Patricio, Gelson Martins, Bruno Fernandes and William Carvalho play their club football.

Assaulted

Last month, the club's players and staff were assaulted after a group of around 50 hooded supporters stormed the training complex following a disappointing end to the season in which the club's outspoken president had attacked the team's performance.

Patricio quit the club two weeks ago, and was this week joined by Carvalho, Martins and Fernandes, who all claimed they have a "valid motive" to free themselves from their contracts. As preparation for a clash with Spain, it is hardly ideal.

Perhaps the Russia bubble will provide a welcome distraction from domestic trouble. Joao Mario, the attacking midfielder, categorically refused to discuss the issue at their club's training base in Moscow, and Santos will surely be hoping the chaos at home lessens the pressure on his players ahead of the group stage meetings with Spain, Morocco and Iran.

The Portugal manager has long insisted that his side are not among the favourites for the tournament, even saying that his team was not in the top five. "For me, the favourites are Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France," he has said. "But that does not mean we do not have ambition."

The message has reached his players. "We are not the favourites, obviously," says Fonte, but it is clear that an impressive tournament feels like a duty as much as a dream. "We are the European champions, and we have our responsibilities." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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