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Portugal's fate rests solely on Ronaldo
Inarguably, the four best teams are in the semifinals; that they are also four of Europe’s traditional powers, with Germany and Italy joining the Iberians on the other side of the bracket, is no coincidence.
But as Euro 2012 has progressed, there is one, inexorable truth that soccer fans are slowly waking up to: After a thrilling group stage, these teams are slowing down, exhausted by both the heat and the grueling league seasons their players have just endured.
Spain, in particular, is coming under heavy criticism for its controlling and, well, boring style of play. It is a fair knock if you care about aesthetics in this sport; if you do not and only care about results, then it is hard to argue with winning. Unfortunately, beauty always has been a factor in the game of soccer — it is often reviewed on the European continent with the same attention to style as is given a gallery showing or a dance recital — and Spain’s slogging tactics are not making the grade.
What Spain has done of late is smother. Its midfield is unquestionably the best in the game at retaining possession and its players are dogged at regaining the ball if and when they lose it. What the Spaniards have not demonstrated is the slickness and domination we have come to expect of a team comprised largely of marquee players from Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Some of Spain's players have bemoaned the criticism, with Andres Iniesta plaintively begging fans to leave them alone and let the team show what they can do. The problem is, they have shown what they can do: win games. But that’s not enough for fans of a modern attacking sport. Are a few more lovely goals too much to ask for?
Part of the issue is tactical. Coach Vicente del Bosque has his charges playing in a swarming six-man style that uses the so-called “false nine” instead of a true striker. In theory, this should clog the midfield and give Spain more avenues of attack. In practice, it has led to a constipated offense, decent enough to beat a French team that seemed eager to head for the bus only minutes after the opening whistle — but perhaps not good enough to deal with a team actually willing to run at you.
Portugal has shown it is willing to run at teams, which may give the defending champion a true challenge. While Portugal is perhaps the most unbalanced side left in the tournament, it also has the best individual player in Cristiano Ronaldo. He has been magisterial over the past two games, transforming a Portuguese side that often lags in the back into a dangerous attacking machine.
Portugal’s major weaknesses are Rui Patricio in the net and the lack of a central striker. Ronaldo and Nani patrol the wings, with the former looking far sharper than the latter, but now with Helder Postiga out (hamstring), the Portuguese are even more depleted driving the lane than usual. Hugo Almeida had his chances against the Czech Republic to show us what he was made of, but, despite appearances of being a superior player, he fluffed all his takes.
But Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles have been special this tournament. Neither man has gotten a lot of credit for it, either. Moutinho is a tricky little playmaker — a type that would be right at home in Spain’s midfield — and he has been instrumental in spreading the ball about the field.
Meireles — a curiously underrated player despite being indispensable during Chelsea’s Champions League trophy run — has shown both legs and vision this tournament. His passes have been crisp, and he is able to spark the attack with a single lob. (Holding the ball is admittedly another matter.)
But it all comes back to Ronaldo, and it is not unfair to say the Portuguese will live or die by him. Against the Czechs they lived, winning with Ronaldo's powerful header that simply blew through Petr Cech’s grasp. He was an animal that night, ferociously drawing defenders, deserving more than he got for his efforts — he has hit the post three times this tournament, twice in the last match alone.
Moreover, he finally has shrugged off some of his reputation as a choker. He has shown up in these big games, and he has welcomed the burden that comes with stardom.
What Ronaldo will not ever be is beloved by fans — he is too slick and too cocky and he rubs just about everyone the wrong way. He has the misfortune not to be this age’s golden boy, Lionel Messi – the little Argentine is a magician and assassin who is also curiously adorable. Against him, Ronaldo seems, well, less than wholesome.
Ronaldo doesn’t seem to enjoy being Messi’s foil, but someone should tell him that villains always get the best lines. He may not have all of Messi’s skill, but he is a consummate leader, a dogged worker and deadly with the ball at his feet. His acceleration is otherworldly, and he is riding one of the longest and greatest hot streaks in the game. He will have to be considered the FIFA World Player of the Year if he leads Portugal to the final.
One would hope that these two teams can raise sparks on the field. But, if we’ve learned anything in these late stages, it that only one side — the Germans — look like they are able to kick it into an upper gear. In the heat of Donetsk, one hopes that the free-flowing soccer both Spain and Portugal can offer will be on display. But, as I said, don’t bet on it.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.
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