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Page last updated at 01:25 GMT, Monday, 14 June 2010 02:25 UK

Portugal expects from Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo

By Aimee Lewis

It was a bleak end of summer in Portugal. The Algarve may have glistened in the sun, but in the pubs and cafes were glum-looking fans, wearing the national team's replica jerseys with heads bowed and shoulders hunched.

"There was a point in qualification where we all thought they wouldn't make it to the World Cup," recalled Portuguese journalist Alberto da Silva.

And it was not only the Portuguese who were fearful that their team would not be in South Africa for the international game's showpiece event. The chief executive of the World Cup organising committee, Danny Jordaan, was also wiping his brow tentatively.

When asked how important it was for the 2006 World Cup semi-finalists to qualify, he replied: "Very, very important." Asked why, his response was simple: "We need the best players in the world."

World Cup profile: Portugal

World Cup guide - Portugal

Jordaan was, of course, referring to Cristiano Ronaldo. Organisers, sponsors and most fans wanted the world's most expensive player on the biggest stage, illuminating the rainbow nation with step-over after step-over, bulldozing free-kick after bulldozing free-kick.

Only in Manchester, it seems, could muffled sniggers be heard, with Ronaldo's former Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney saying "it would be nice" if Portugal failed to reach South Africa.

It was the Portuguese and Jordaan who got their wish as their captain and his team-mates lifted themselves from the precipice in the latter half of qualifying with victories over Albania, Hungary and Malta.

Two wins against Bosnia-Hercegovina in the play-offs followed and football's showman can now take to the stage.

Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal team-mate Bruno Alves
Portugal's best World Cup finish was third back in 1966

"The mood is quite optimistic now," said Da Silva. "Now people believe again. People are now behind them and people have faith. Ronaldo is our great hope. He's the trump card to do something great in South Africa."

Real Madrid's new manager, Jose Mourinho, is a little gloomier about Portugal's prospects, saying his country, third in Fifa's world rankings, do not have a chance of lifting the trophy "even with Ronaldo playing at 1,000kmh".

But the homeland is undoubtedly putting Ronaldo in the spotlight, not that the Real Madrid forward is the type to shy away from such anticipation.

Instead of easing the burden, the former world player of the year has declared he wants to become the greatest player in history. But can Ronaldo move towards achieving that feat in South Africa?

Can the master of step-overs carry Portugal through a taxing group consisting of Brazil, North Korea and Ivory Coast when, over the past 20 months, beating Sweden and Denmark - and scoring at home against Albania - has been beyond Ronaldo and his compatriots?

The 25-year-old failed to score during Portugal's qualifying campaign - Portugal found the net a paltry 17 times, with eight goals coming at the expense of Malta. Indeed, manager Carlos Queiroz joked that his team's poor finishing has contributed to his hair loss.

And Ronaldo's scoring drought has continued into four World Cup friendly games (against China, Cape Verde, Cameroon and Mozambique), but his confidence has not wavered as the man from Madeira says he is saving himself for the World Cup.

Yet, in an unfamiliar show of fragility, even Ronaldo has admitted he cannot perform miracles for his country, and injury to Portugal's other in-form winger, Nani, has only heaped the onus of creativity on Ronaldo.

"I do not play alone," he warned. "It's not enough to have just two or three players. For a team to win the World Cup you must not necessarily have 11 good players but seven or eight of a very good standard."

Portugal's World Cup qualifying highlights

The Portuguese, however, will at least be hoping their number seven can do enough to at least steer them beyond Group G.

After all, throughout last season virtuoso performances from Real's £80m acquisition saved the Spanish aristocrats from mediocrity and took them to the brink of the league title.

It is why Spain, or a certain part of the country's capital has, like Portugal, fallen in love with the former Manchester United forward.

'God came disguised as CR9' was one headline emblazoned across the front page of the Madrid-based sports daily Marca last season, while AS, Spain's second largest sports daily, went as far as to thank Ronaldo for saving La Liga.

Without Ronaldo, they argued, Barcelona would have won the title at a canter. As it was, the Catalans snatched La Liga by three points on the final day of the season.

Former Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant, now at Real Zaragoza, played against Ronaldo at the Bernabeau last season.

Portugal and Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo has scored 26 goals in 29 La Liga appearances for Real

"We crossed paths and he said hello. The way he spoke in English made him sound as if he was from London!" Pennant told BBC Sport. "But he's done well in his first season there.

"It's been a big battle between Ronaldo and Messi, with the papers turning it into almost a war. That's all you ever really hear about, it's an on-going battle between the two and it will probably be so at the World Cup.

"Messi has been phenomenal this season, he was unplayable when we met Barcelona in the league.

"Our manager just said 'there's nothing you can do to stop him'. Messi seems to be taking all the headlines, with hat-tricks in the league and Champions League, but that doesn't mean Ronaldo has not done well."

BBC Sport's European football expert Phil Minshull agrees. "Ronaldo didn't start terribly well in Spain and the knives were out for him a little bit, but he played extremely well in the final half of the season," he said.

"Ronaldo showed some fantastic displays of individual brilliance. In terms of what he has contributed to the team, if it hadn't been for Cristiano Ronaldo they would probably have drawn matches and dropped points against mid-table opposition rather than won them."

606: DEBATE
LB

One such occasion was a floodlit Wednesday evening in June at the Estadui San Moix. Real Madrid trailed Mallorca 1-0 and Los Blancos seemed dazed, tepid and anxious. Defeat would almost certainly have given Barcelona carte blanche to start title-winning celebrations. A Real win would at least take the fight to the penultimate round of the season.

Real's then manager Manuel Pellegrini shuffled uneasily in his seat, but he need not have worried as Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro dragged his toiling team-mates to victory by the scruff of their extravagantly-priced necks.

He scored an impressive hat-trick and afterwards described the performance as the best of his career. For similar heroics, see away games in Villarreal and Almeria and home ties against Valencia and Sevilla, and countless others, too.

Those who have criticised Ronaldo for not replicating his club form in Portugal colours have been told by the player that they "don't understand anything about football".

He has a point. Ronaldo was one of the star players at the last World Cup, helping his side to the semi-finals, after an infamous quarter-final victory over England, and although he was largely disappointing at Euro 2008, it could be argued Portugal would not be in South Africa were it not for their talisman.

At the Estadio da Luz, with Portugal needing three points against Hungary to move into second spot in their qualifying group, Ronaldo took to the field with an ankle injury and proceeded to set Portugal on their way to victory before hobbling off after 27 minutes.

"When you see his name on the team-sheet it's like they get two players from one man," said Hungary coach Edwin Koeman, brother of former Netherland's defender Ronald. "There is the player whose performance you see, and this other one who motivates the team."

But whether Ronaldo can show his best form on the biggest stage of all is still open to question.

Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo did not score in Portugal's World Cup qualifying campaign

While playing for Manchester United, he was criticised for hiding in the shadows during important matches (in particular, the 2009 Champions League final against Barcelona), and those same concerns have blighted his Real career.

"His weakest games in the final five months of last season were the two Champions League games against Lyon, and the league game against Barcelona, which Real lost," said Minshull.

"So, even though he can really turn it on against middle-of-the-table, relegation-threatened teams, there still remains a bit of a question mark over his temperament to really play well when the occasion demands it."

Over the next few weeks, Ronaldo has the perfect platform to silence his critics.



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Group tables

Group A

Group A teams W D L GD PTS
Uruguay 2 1 0 4 7
Mexico 1 1 1 1 4
South Africa 1 1 1 -2 4
France 0 1 2 -3 1

Group B

Group B teams W D L GD PTS
Argentina 3 0 0 6 9
South Korea 1 1 1 -1 4
Greece 1 0 2 -3 3
Nigeria 0 1 2 -2 1

Group C

Group C teams W D L GD PTS
USA 1 2 0 1 5
England 1 2 0 1 5
Slovenia 1 1 1 0 4
Algeria 0 1 2 -2 1

Group D

Group D teams W D L GD PTS
Germany 2 0 1 4 6
Ghana 1 1 1 0 4
Australia 1 1 1 -3 4
Serbia 1 0 2 -1 3

Group E

Group E teams W D L GD PTS
Netherlands 3 0 0 4 9
Japan 2 0 1 2 6
Denmark 1 0 2 -3 3
Cameroon 0 0 3 -3 0

Group F

Group F teams W D L GD PTS
Paraguay 1 2 0 2 5
Slovakia 1 1 1 -1 4
New Zealand 0 3 0 0 3
Italy 0 2 1 -1 2

Group G

Group G teams W D L GD PTS
Brazil 2 1 0 3 7
Portugal 1 2 0 7 5
Ivory Coast 1 1 1 1 4
North Korea 0 0 3 -11 0

Group H

Group H teams W D L GD PTS
Spain 2 0 1 2 6
Chile 2 0 1 1 6
Switzerland 1 1 1 0 4
Honduras 0 1 2 -3 1

see also
Team guide: Portugal
31 May 10 |  World Cup 2010
Country profile: Portugal
22 Mar 12 |  Country profiles
Portugal's promise
03 Jun 10 |  World Cup 2010
Eto'o off as Portugal beat Lions
01 Jun 10 |  World Cup 2010
Pepe makes final Portugal squad
01 Jun 10 |  World Cup 2010


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