Cristiano Ronaldo is playing with such high levels of invention,bravery and desire that he is carrying Portugal in the European Championships. The tournaments first quarterfinal pitted the Czech Republic against Portugal on Thursday. At least that was what it said on the team sheets. The reality is that two men transcended the rest.
One,Ronaldo,was a conjuring artist at high speed. The other,goalkeeper Petr Cech,used every inch of his 6-foot-5 frame to twist like a corkscrew,diving right and left,high and low to deny Ronaldo. Two of Ronaldos shots struck the post after beating Cech. Finally,after 79 minutes of this duel,the Portuguese captain defeated the Czech captain with a header of such force and direction that the ball carried into the net even though Cech got a glove on it.
Portugal advanced to the semifinals with a 1-0 victory,though the final score could have read: Ronaldo 1,Czech Republic 0. Portugal will play Spain or France in the semifinals in Donetsk,Ukraine,on Wednesday. Seldom has one country owed so much to one man. Seldom has a single player transcended the others on the pitch to the point that he seemed to defeat the notion that soccer is first and foremost about the team.
On Sunday,Ronaldo scored the two goals against the Netherlands that gave Portugal the victory that put it in the quarterfinals. In Warsaw on Thursday,beneath the closed roof of Polands national stadium and with a crowd urging on the Czechs,it seemed to be Ronaldo against everybody.
At times,four opponents were trying to shackle him. The fans were against him because they desperately wanted the Czech Republic,the last of the Eastern European teams in the competition,to reach the semifinals. The Czechs ran themselves to exhaustion,but they were an ordinary team against a better opponent.
Thursdays game featured two moments of classic Ronaldo. The first,after 26 minutes,demonstrated the bodily power he possesses as he came hip to hip with the muscular defender Michal Kadlec. Ronaldo shrugged him to the turf and drew a splendid save from Cech,the Chelsea goalie who knows Ronaldo from his Manchester United days. Cech got off his line quickly and smothered Ronaldos shot with both hands.
That was the only save either goalkeeper made in the first 45 minutes,but as halftime neared Ronaldo applied more pressure. Raul Meireles picked out Ronaldo lurking between defenders in the penalty area. He took the pass down on his chest,then controlled it with one dab of his right foot as he turned too quickly for Kadlec to his right. Before David Limbersky could get within kicking distance to Ronaldos left,the Portuguese captain whipped a shot with his right foot. The shot was beyond Cech,but it cannoned off the post.
The coup de grâce came later. João Moutinho had sped down the right flank and delivered a cross high to the far post. Ronaldo rose,rippling with power and desire to get past the nearest defender. His forehead made perfect contact,driving the ball down into the grass and back up on the bounce,through the grasp of Cech.
Ronaldo has drawn fierce criticism over the years from those who say he is a diva who does not deliver. The results tell a different story. He has delivered for Manchester United and Real Madrid,and he is certainly delivering now for his country on one of his sports biggest stages.
Next goal: final
After guiding Portugal into the semi-final,Cristiano Ronaldo played down the heightened expectations and said that the next goal for the team was to make the final.
Our journey has been very hard. We overcame one more hurdle. Well wait and see who we get in the semifinals, said Ronaldo. Expectations are high. We have to keep our feet firmly on the ground and take one step at a time. We have to win the next game. The goal is to get to the final.
There were comparisions with Lionel Messi once again and his team mate Joao Moutinho said: Cristiano Ronaldo is a very complete player in all aspects, Moutinho said. Messi is,too,but they differ from another. I prefer Ronaldo.