LENS, France, June 24 – Cristiano Ronaldo awoke from his Euro 2016 slumber in time to rescue Portugal from an early exit, but faces a greater challenge against a classy Croatia side that Portugal coach Fernando Santos called “sharks”.
Ronaldo made history as the first player to score in four European Championships with a double in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Hungary. The result saw Portugal just squeeze through behind Iceland and Hungary in third-place in Group F.
The Real Madrid star has more records in his sights as he is just one goal behind French legend Michel Platini’s mark of nine in European Championship finals.
However, Ronaldo refused to accept Portugal were underdogs against a Croatia side that shocked two-time defending champions Spain to top Group D.
“We made it and now we face a very good team, but the odds are 50/50,” said Ronaldo.
“Croatia are a tough team, with good players. Not every team manages to beat Spain.
“We respect them, but we know our strengths and we’ll look them in the eye when we face them.”
Croatia are likely to be even stronger for Saturday’s clash in Lille (1900GMT) than against Spain with the return of Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate Luka Modric from injury.
Juventus frontman Mario Mandzukic is also likely to shake off a knock to retake his place after Croatia coach Ante Cacic made five changes for the historic win over Spain.
“Croatia are one of the sharks we had been trying to avoid,” admitted Portugal boss Santos.
“They placed first in a group with Spain, which tells you all you need to know about them.”
However, Santos has placed his faith in Ronaldo to again answer his country’s call after his double strike.
“This will have increased his confidence levels. He’s a confident player anyway, but this will have boosted him for the next game against Croatia.”
For Croatia a bright start to a tournament in France has rekindled memories of their fairytale run to the World Cup semi-finals in 1998 before losing out to the hosts 2-1.
Ivan Perisic was the hero against Spain, drilling home the winner three minutes from time.
However, Croatia cannot get carried away despite finding themselves in the weaker half of the draw avoiding Germany, France, Italy, Spain or England until the final.
“We made a really great job in the group stages, but this is just the beginning. If we lose the next match this doesn’t mean anything,” Perisic said.
“We have to stay at the same level and fight as we did in the first three matches if we want to recreate memories of 1998.”
The sour note for Croatia has come off the field as their football federation (HNS) was fined 100,000 euros ($113,000) for disturbances when fans threw flares onto the pitch during a 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic last week.
HNS president and hero of the 1998 World Cup run Davor Suker praised the security effort that ensured there were no problems in the stands against Spain.
However, he called for stricter controls on those allowed to enter the grounds in France to ensure there is no repeat of the Lens trouble.
“In any other country this would last one day. There are between 300 and 500 hooligans in Croatia that are listed, that cause problems in any place in Europe and came to Saint-Etienne. You have to stop them entering the ground.
“There was exceptional security (in the Spain match), there were no problems and exceptional fair play.
“Ninety nine point nine percent (of fans) are great, but there are 0.01 percent of radicals that want to destroy football and we have to stop them now because we have paid over one million euros in fines for nothing.”