The two opposing captains face off on Sunday night in the first ever UEFA Nations League final with Ronaldo coming off the back of a 53rd hat-trick
The last that most casual fans saw of Cristiano Ronaldo during the club season was for Juventus in the Champions League quarter-finals against Ajax. He scored in both legs, which ahead of the UEFA Nations League final against the Netherlands will give Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind in particular cause for concern.
Ronaldo showed on both evenings that even in a malfunctioning team he is capable of deciding outcomes. Juventus failed in the Champions League this year and as a result there will be big changes in Turin this summer, starting with the coach.
Ronaldo was the only player to score for them in the knockout rounds; he followed up his hat-trick against Atletico Madrid in the last 16 with a goal in each leg against the Dutch champions. It wasn’t enough. He carried more than his fair share for the Italians and was let down by what was going on around him.
He doesn’t need time, he doesn’t need space, he doesn’t need five chances. He needs barely a chink of light.
The 34-year-old, according to one coach who prepared a team against one of Ronaldo’s, is actually straightforward to plan for in general play. A defensive line knows where he is going to be, whether he’s going to stand in the front line or drop off to the wings or further back, and can keep him in their sights. It’s in in the breakdown that he becomes unmarkable.
And his hat-trick goals against Switzerland on Wednesday night in the Nations League semi-final demonstrated that. The first is a great free-kick which he won himself and despatched. But in the analysis of the second and third goals you can see the danger which faces the Netherlands tonight.
Portugal built a sweeping back-to-front goal for Ronaldo to go ahead with only a couple of minutes remaining. Minute one or minute 89, Ronaldo is alert to the possibility of chances. The ball from Ruben Neves to Bernardo Silva puts Switzerland on the back foot and the Manchester City man then conjures a successful pull-back.
But the pull-back is only successful because it is Ronaldo meeting it. Look again at the movement to evade Manuel Akanji at the edge of the box. If you’re wondering why Akanji is not close by the time Ronaldo shoots at goal, well, the devil is in the detail. He only needs a split second to strike in a move like this, and rarely fluffs it. In a team that goes slow – slow – fast in the creation of chances, he is lethal.
But the third goal shows the other side of Ronaldo; what he is capable of when opposition possession breaks down. From the moment Granit Xhaka loses the ball in the midfield due to a lack of concentration, Portugal put the stranglehold on Switzerland.
Ronaldo with half a pitch to gallop into on the break is a foreboding sight for any defence in world football, at club or international level. In the chaos which envelops the field after a turnover, he is ruthless. All he needs is the right ball and he will do what he did against the Swiss. Two stepovers later, the ball is in Yann Sommer’s bottom corner.
“We know he’s one of the best, and the nicest thing in football is that you cannot stop [a player like him] 100 percent [of the time] because sometimes he’s too good,” Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman said on Saturday.
“We know the qualities of that player, and of course we need to defend well when we have the ball, we need good defensive organisation, but it’s not a special marking [system], one on one, because we don’t like that.
“But, Ronaldo is good enough to create [chances], even against really good defenders, and that’s the nicest part of football, that you can’t do everything because his quality is at such a high level that sometimes it’s difficult.
“They can stop him, of course, it’s all about the match and how it starts, and the ball possession, and that will be really important for us.”
Portugal are sometimes criticised for their fundamental football but they are a far better side than given credit for. Fernando Santos has given a platform to Ronaldo to shine, as he should do considering the captain has now scored 88 international goals, second only to Iran’s Ali Daei in the all-time reckoning.
“The reason that explains how a player can keep up this kind of level at 34 – and I think he will keep going for three or four more years – is that he is a player who has very specific and strong goals,” the Portugal coach said.
“That’s what makes him have a great life in terms of his determination, his physical well-being, he keeps his intensity levels very high and always trains at his limits.
“His life beside that is also very important. It was always an ambition of his, he always kept it as a purpose.
“That’s why, although it isn’t very usual, a player can be 34 years of age, scoring 50 goals per season and will continue to do so for a little while longer.”
Portugal can play on the counter and hit on the break, or else they can probe through the possession-retention capabilities of Neves, William Carvalho and, especially, Bernardo Silva in the middle. Ronaldo provides them a threat both ways.
In order for Portugal to win the Nations League, Ronaldo won’t need to be come the first player in 65-odd matches to dribble past Virgil van Dijk. He won’t even need to be in the game for long spells. All he needs is a moment to pounce.
De Ligt has suffered it this season, Blind has suffered it this season, and having struggled against Lionel Messi in the Champions League semi-final first leg in Barcelona, the biggest test there is now awaits Van Dijk.
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