Euro 2012: Portugal looks to Ronaldo for success

Cristiano Ronaldo makes a big difference for Portugal.

When an ankle injury kept him out of Portugal’s first two

European Championship qualifying games, the team drew at home

against Cyprus and lost to Norway. When the captain returned,

Portugal racked up a five-game winning streak that put it back in

contention.

Portugal’s problem, however, is that the squad lacks depth and,

beyond Ronaldo, top-class talent in some key positions.

As with previous greats Eusebio and Luis Figo, Ronaldo’s

presence lifts the team a notch. The Real Madrid forward was

Portugal’s top scorer in its qualifying campaign, with seven goals

in eight games, and is the country’s third-highest scorer with 32

goals in 87 appearances.

Portugal coach Paulo Bento, mindful of the weight on Ronaldo’s

shoulders, is eager to stop the expectations from becoming a

burden.

”We’re going to avoid putting pressure on any one player,”

Bento said. ”We know what value, talent and commitment Ronaldo has

given us but we won’t put him under pressure to resolve the team’s

problems.”

That may be easier said than done for a team that so far hasn’t

looked like one of the continent’s best despite being ranked fifth

in the world by FIFA. Portugal is the odd one out in what is

arguably the tournament’s toughest group as rivals Germany, the

Netherlands and Denmark are all past winners of the tournament

while the Portuguese are still chasing their first international

title.

Portugal came close to collecting its first silverware at Euro

2004, when it lost to Greece in the final. At the 2006 World Cup,

it reached the semifinals. Since then, it has rarely impressed.

Perhaps Portugal’s biggest shortcoming is the absence of a

world-class center forward. Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida have

had disappointing seasons at their clubs but they have remained

first-choice strikers in a Portugal team that gets most of its

goals from midfield players. The pair together scored seven goals –

the same as Ronaldo – in qualifying.

When Ronaldo is absent Portugal looks to Nani, who missed the

2010 World Cup because of injury. But the winger, despite some

spectacular goals, hasn’t made the same impact as Ronaldo with

Portugal or Manchester United.

There is also a question mark over the right back and left back

positions. Fabio Coentrao has been inconsistent on the left of Real

Madrid’s defense, while Sporting Lisbon right back Joao Pereira is

seen as a lightweight. There is no obvious replacement for either

of them.

The most encouraging development for Portugal is Bento’s career

as national coach.

When he replaced Carlos Queiroz in September 2010 after Portugal

earned only one point from its first two qualifiers, Bento’s only

previous senior coaching experience was at Sporting Lisbon between

2005-09.

But Portugal recorded five straight victories after he took

charge. And crucially, Ronaldo regained his goal touch under Bento.

Ronaldo scored three times in his first four appearances under

Bento after finding the net only twice – once from the penalty spot

– in 18 matches with Queiroz.

Bento has also broadened the squad by trying out a series of

uncapped players and has recalled others sidelined under his

predecessor.

”The change (of coach) brought new blood and a change of

mentality, and Paulo Bento should be congratulated,” Ronaldo

said.

Despite the improvements, Bento, a former defensive midfielder

who played for Portugal at Euro 2000 and at the 2002 World Cup, is

aware that it’s a big ask at Euro 2012 to get Portugal beyond the

group stage – a hurdle it has never before failed to clear.

”It’s a very difficult group,” Bento conceded. ”We’ll have to

be at our best to reach the following round.”