WARSAW, Poland, June 22 – Portugal fans and neutrals hoping for a splash edition of the Cristiano Ronaldo roadshow had their appetite satisfied as he single-handedly steered his country into the Euro 2012 semi-finals by beating the Czech Republic 1-0.
Ronaldo showed the same kind of sparkle that saw the Portugal captain dominate play and claim a brace in his team’s 2-1 defeat of the Netherlands last Sunday – goals he had dedicated to his son, who turned two the same day.
So often maligned for failing to recapture his Real Madrid form when wearing the Portugal shirt, Ronaldo’s 79th-minute header took his Euro 2012 tally to three, making him joint top scorer with Germany’s Mario Gomez – plus Russia’s Alan Dzagoev and Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic, whose teams failed to advance from the group stage.
And he was delighted at sending the Portuguese into a semi-final against either titleholders Spain or France.
“Our great aim is to get to the final. We have a great squad and now I’d say the chances are 50-50 and we just have to believe in it,” Ronaldo said afterwards.
“I think it was a fantastic game for Portugal. In the first 20 minutes we weren’t that good but we improved a lot. It was a perfect game for us, with a lot of opportunities. The Czechs didn’t have one opportunity.
“We had the quality to reach the semi-finals. We are happy but know the next match will be difficult but the team is very mature and we are ready,” Ronaldo added.
Defeated Czech captain and goalkeeper Petr Cech hailed Ronaldo, despite the player having ended his country’s Euro 2012 dreams.
“It’s not a good feeling. We lost. We’re out. They were better, and they deserved the win,” he said.
“Ronaldo is one of the top two players in the world, and he proved it with his goal, with that great header. It’s really difficult to defend against him. He has shown again that he is one of the best players in the world.
“We really prepared hard to cope with him, but he is a player of the greatest class,” said Bilek.
“He was able to rise to the occasion.”
A divisive figure around whom Portugal are often accused of creating a cult of personality, Ronaldo won the loudest cheer from his fans in Warsaw’s National Stadium when the announcer reeled off each squad, but earned catcalls from Czech supporters when he stepped up to take free kicks.
The high-profile player – officially the most-tweeted at Euro 2012 according to UEFA – is often a target for his opponents’ supporters.
Denmark’s fans even tried to get under his skin by chanting the name of his nemesis in the Spanish league, Lionel Messi, during their country’s 3-2 loss to Portugal last week.
That, coupled with repeated media criticism, has led Portugal to rally round their captain and, earlier in the tournament, to shun the press in protest – though the man himself did speak to Portuguese television.
The 27-year-old striker struggled early in the half against the Czechs in part because of the lacklustre performance of his team-mates.
The frustration showed as he and Czech midfielder Petr Jiracek avoided a booking from referee Howard Webb after they angrily pawed at each other in front the Czechs’ goal.
He was finally to find his stride 25 minutes in, when midfielder Joao Moutinho fed him the ball, only for Czech keeper and captain Petr Cech to block his strike.
Seconds into stoppage time, he produced a sublime piece of skill in turning Michal Kadlec and chesting the ball down before letting rip only for it to hit the post.
After the return from the dressing room, Ronaldo was everywhere, hitting the post again with a free kick, and setting up a string of further attacks.
Dominating play, Portugal continued to pound the Czech defence, and Moutinho’s cross found an advancing Ronaldo, who dived to head past a floundering Cech and put Portugal through.
His winning performance in the match had an extra edge because he had failed to shine in the same stadium when Portugal met Poland in a February 29 friendly that markes the arena’s opening.