Just give the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal’s Plan A (and B)

Portugal Training - EURO 2016

Should Portugal end up leaving these Euros in disappointment, as they did the last World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo can at least console himself with the idea of donning his favourite mildewed Withnail & I greatcoat, sinking a few bottles of Margaux ’53 and announcing, as per Richard E Grant’s famous turn in a genteel Penrith tea shop, that he is going to come back in here and buy this place.

Win the Euros? Ronaldo can afford to stage his own if he really feels like it. This may not be the best use of his reported $310m fortune but there is still an amusing symmetry in the fact Euro 2016’s record €301m prize money tab could, in event of some lost-wallet Uefa emergency, be covered by the world’s highest-paid athlete.

Portugal will play Iceland in their Group F opener in Saint-Etienne on Tuesday night. Even here there is an intriguing point of status comparison as Lars Lagerback’s volcano-nation debutants take on one of the genuine old lags of modern tournament football. Lagerback and his men arrived piled into a minibus for their pre-tournament training session. When Ronaldo played at Iceland’s Laugardalsvöllur stadium four years ago he demanded, unsuccessfully, that half the cramped and homely changing space be set aside for his own toilette (before, it must be said, going out to win the game in the first three minutes).

Ronaldo and Ricardo Carvalho are the only surviving members of the strong Portugal squad that reached the final of this tournament 12 years ago. Back then Luis Figo and Deco were the stars, Ronaldo still four years from his first world-player-of-the-year gong. This time Portugal’s captain takes the field for his fourth Uefa summer beano at the peak, if not perhaps of his playing capacities, then certainly of his star wattage, that vast multi-tiered pant-posing cult of celebrity.

No man is bigger than the tournament but Ronaldo might just have a go. As it stands the world’s favourite oiled and burnished speedboat-lurker has 42.3m more followers on Twitter than Euro 2016, 105m more Facebook likes than Uefa and will, as ever, turn out to be the default zoom of TV producers.

At his pre-match press conference Fernando Santos did his best to scoff at the idea this might be Ronaldo’s final tournament. “He still has a few years ahead of him,” Portugal’s head coach dead-batted. “This is the last tournament for all of us in a positive way. We all think this can be our last opportunity because we want to win.” But the fact remains that whatever happens from here the marketing arms of Uefa and Fifa need Ronaldo more than he needs another biennial summer grind.

For all that, there is on the pitch a certain clarity about Ronaldo in France. The cards have fallen nicely. Noises off have faded out. This is a superstar player who really does have nothing left to prove. That second Champions League win with Real Madrid in May lances any pressure on his own sense of legacy and tangible triumph. Ronaldo was muted in the final but he still got his winning-penalty moment, was the competition’s top gun, scored 50 goals last season and could probably burp his way from here to another Ballon d’Or.

There is mid-summer clarity then but also a wider sense of having been here and done this. Ronaldo has been accused of failing to meet his own standards at international level but this is now an unjustified snipe. Since the last Euros he has 32 goals in 43 Portugal games and has driven his country regally through a World Cup play-off billed as a mano-a-mano duel with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

He has six goals in three European Championships with a real chance to add a few more given another note of summer clarity. Portugal are likely to line up at this tournament with an undeniably simple Ronaldo-centred take on 4-4-2. Without a fit-for-purpose orthodox striker Ronaldo will be given all-access accreditation to play where he wants, do as he pleases, make the game up off the cuff. The tactics are simple enough. Out of possession: work hard, cover the spaces, then give it to Ronaldo. In possession: work hard, cover the spaces, then give it to Ronaldo. Portugal do, of course, have a plan B. Plan B is to give it to Ronaldo slightly quicker.

One benefit of the free role is to stop opponents blocking Ronaldo off in the centre or planning to double-team him on the flanks. Lagerback was quick to raise an eyebrow at the suggestion Iceland might man-mark Ronaldo (“I would be a little bit surprised if we chose to do it that way”). But this is perhaps to do with the difficulty of doing so in a potentially unsettling roving role.

Portugal’s players also have to respond to Ronaldo’s movement in this system, to cover the spaces a more ferrety central striker might cover and be alive also to Ronaldo’s muse. With this in mind they will look to be extra-solid in the centre, with João Moutinho and the impressive Danilo likely to start ahead of the shadow-man William Carvalho, linked to a move to the Premier League for so long he has acquired semi-mythic status, a kind of defensive midfield Keyser Söze.

Moutinho came up only a year behind Ronaldo in the Sporting Lisbon youth levels and commented before the match on another note of clarity in the ever more pared-back Ronaldo playing persona. “He has changed,” Moutinho said. “He’s a more objective player, he’s a goalscorer now, he scores so many goals and I hope that goalscoring instinct can come up tomorrow.”

This has been his evolution, from dribbling winger, to all-round striker, to less all-round striker, a player who is more still, whose most defined task in any team is simply to be given the ball and shoot at goal, a lone, fixed, high-grade pump-action shotgun.

There are some clouds for Portugal. Ronaldo has only just recovered from the thigh injury he suffered at the end of the club season. Ricardo Qaresma may not recover in time to share some of the creative burden. Plus Iceland are well-organised, settled opponents. Even as tournament virgins their players are well-travelled phlegmatic individuals. They attack quickly from behind a deep defensive line that was enough to beat Holland home and away in qualifying.

Moreover in Gylfi Sigurdsson they have their own ace, scorer of six goals in that campaign. As Lagerback said, nodding at his favoured playmaker, “We also have one sitting here who with his right foot has won many points for us.”

Iceland may be pitched against this tournament’s greatest single star in Paris. But they are unlikely to blink in the light.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Barney Ronay in Paris, for The Guardian on Tuesday 14th June 2016 10.00 Europe/London

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