Team of stars versus team with superstar is a Real classic
FOR Spain it’s about stopping one man while, for Portugal, it will be more about containing a whole team when the sides meet in tonight’s first European Championship semi-final in Donetsk.
While Cristiano Ronaldo holds the key to Portugal’s chances of taking a step closer to a first major trophy, Spain’s charge toward an unprecedented third straight tournament victory is anchored in selfless teamwork. Spain simply do not need a Ronaldo, while Portugal desperately do.
After a difficult start to the tournament, Ronaldo has stepped up when it mattered, scoring three goals in the last two games to move Portugal within touching distance of their first final since Euro 2004, when they lost on home soil to rank outsiders Greece.
This time, Portugal will be very much the outsiders at the Donbass Arena.
“We have to be ourselves and not change the way we play just because we’re going to face the reigning World and European champion,” Portugal defender Joao Pereira said. “We’re going to play our own game.”
That is more than France did in last Saturday’s quarter-final, when they tried to stifle Spain at the expense of their own ambition, and meekly lost 2-0.
Meek is not a word often associated with Ronaldo, whose 86 league goals in the past two seasons with Real Madrid make him the only player who comes close to rivaling Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.
Although Portugal have another skilful operator in Manchester United winger Nani, the team is under no illusions how to play in Donetsk tonight – fast counter-attacks and getting the ball up to Ronaldo as quickly as possible.
“Our weapons are not a secret,” midfielder Custodio said. “Will this be Portugal’s year? I hope so.”
Portugal beat Spain 4-0 in a friendly in November, 2010 – Spain’s heaviest defeat since winning the World Cup.
But only victory tonight will heal the wounds from Portugal’s ill-tempered 1-0 loss to Spain in the second round of the World Cup two years ago – in which Spain shackled Ronaldo.
They will be confident of doing so again, with four of Ronaldo’s Real Madrid team-mates likely to be playing – goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, and Alvaro Arbeloa. Raul Albiol is also in the squad.
The three Madrid players for Portugal are Ronaldo, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao.
Alonso said: “I’ve spoken to [Portugal’s Madrid players] and the three of them look very good,” Alonso said. “They’ve carried over their club form into the tournament.”
Throw in Spain’s five Barcelona players – Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas – and the match has all the elements of being a mini-Clasico.
Whether Pepe can keep his sometimes reckless tackling under control may prove crucial to Portugal’s chances.
Spain defender Alvaro Arbeloa, meanwhile, has warned his team-mates not to fall into the trap of assuming Ronaldo is the only threat that Portugal pose.
The world’s most expensive player is undoubtedly a major obstacle to Spain’s hopes of defending their European title but Arbeloa believes his side would actually be making a big mistake if they focused all their attention on stopping the former Manchester United star.
Right-back Arbeloa, who could find himself going head-to-head with his Madrid team-mate tonight, said: “We all know that Ronaldo is an excellent player, but Portugal is not only Cristiano.
“They have had an excellent tournament with players of great quality and we have to stop all of them, not only Cristiano. We know how good he is, and he is showing that at the Euros.
“We hope that we have a good game and Cristiano not so much.”
Arbeloa admits, though, that he is looking forward to the challenge of trying stopping his club-mate, who scored 60 goals in all competitions for Madrid last season.
Arbeloa said: “It’s always physically and mentally demanding to face a player who is one of the best and playing at a spectacular level.
“I always like to measure myself against the best, it’s a great challenge.”
Although, the Portuguese and Spanish players worked together to help Real win their first Primera Division title since 2008 last season, Arbeloa has warned his Portuguese colleagues not to expect any favours tomorrow.
He said: “It’s the same as when you are at your clubs and you play against team-mates from the national side. Tomorrow I will have not club-mates, they will be enemies.
“I don’t usually speak with the people against who I’m going to play. I will fight to help Spain get into the final.”
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