Portugal lack finishers as pressure mounts on Ronaldo

Seleção coach Fernando Santos remains defiant ahead of Hungary clash

22 June ~ Before June 8, the Portuguese had generally been a little sceptical about their team’s chances in France. Then they played Estonia at the Luz in the last warm-up match and knocked seven past them in a dazzling display of attacking football, with a seemingly rejuvenated Ricardo Quaresma scoring twice and assisting for another two. His resurgence offered coach Fernando Santos a viable 4-3-3 alternative (with Quaresma joining Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani up front) to the preferred 4-4-2, and suddenly the European title he’d been promising seemed very doable.

Until their first two group games that is, when reality kicked in. Portugal dominated both and gave the opposition very few chances (in fact the defence has let in just six goals in the last ten competitive fixtures). But they could kill neither game: goal attempts against Iceland were 27/4, against Austria 23/3 – one goal in 50 shots.

No one misses like us was A Bola’s front-page headline after Austria. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that they had trouble finding the net, though, even with a man who had just scored over 50 goals for his club for the sixth season in a row; the Seleção had managed just 11 goals in eight games in qualifying, and Estonia had felt like a freak result.

Ever since Pauleta finished his international career in 2006 (47 goals in 88 games), Portugal have been unable to find a reliable replacement. The only out-and-out striker in this squad is Lille’s Éder, who has found the net just three times in 28 appearances. So hopes of goals have rested mainly on Ronaldo (58 – more than the rest of the squad put together). But the problem with depending on a single player to do your scoring for you is if he’s off the boil. Which, for whatever reason, has certainly been the case in France.

Ronaldo missed a sitter and saw his late penalty ping back off a post against Austria. He was already taking flak from all quarters for his petulant post-match denigration of Iceland. John Carlin (admittedly a Barcelona fan), wrote in Spanish daily El País: “Never in the history of football has there been someone who has combined so much talent as a player with so much ridiculousness as a person.” After Austria, though, Ronaldo was being targeted from closer to home, too.

On tabloid Correio da Manhã’s TV channel, one pundit suggested (albeit tentatively) what would have been unthinkable only a short while ago; that Ronaldo should spend some time on the bench (Ronaldo would later throw a CMTV reporter’s mic into a pond). António Simões, a team-mate of Eusébio’s in 1966, was more direct: “Cristiano Ronaldo is an extraordinary player, but his relationship is with himself, with the ball, with the game, and only then with the team. All the ‘kings’ of football, and there aren’t many of them, have understood that there’s a team.” Those of us annoyed, for example, at his insistence on taking all free-kicks within 40 metres of the goal would agree.

But others have leapt to his defence, citing his immense contribution to the national team over the years (he’s just equalled and surpassed Luís Figo’s record of 127 appearances) and criticising what they see as a lack of gratitude to the man. Unsurprisingly, his mother Dolores also weighed in on her son’s side: “Even the best make mistakes, and that’s what’s happened… but I ask everyone to support Cristiano and not to criticise him. I have a lot of faith – Our Lady of Fátima will be with us. I’m going to light a candle and we’re going to win.”

She’s not the only one who thinks so. After the Austria game, an irritated and defensive Santos blustered: “We’re going to get to the final, and we’re going to win it!” The following day, he insisted: “I’ve already told my family that I’ll be back on July 11 [the day after the final], and that I’m going to be feted.” 

But first Hungary, who are already through and may rest players. Apart from the scoring problem, the Seleção haven’t played so badly in their two games and to go through themselves, a draw will be enough against a team that Portugal have never lost to (seven wins and three draws). Back home, though, a general feeling of disillusionment and doubt exists and was summed up in A Bola’s editorial on Tuesday, before it was known that a draw would be enough: “If Portugal don’t win against Hungary, they don’t deserve to continue in the Euros.” Phil Town