PORTO, Portugal, Jun 4 – Cristiano Ronaldo has ended his international exile to spearhead Portugal’s hopes of winning the inaugural Nations League on home soil this week, but gone are the days when he was the European champions’ only man to fear.
A five-time Ballon d’Or and Champions League winner, who has delivered league titles to his clubs in England, Spain and Italy, there is little left for Ronaldo to prove.
But after his tears as a teenager when losing a home final at Euro 2004, Ronaldo can avenge that defeat by lifting the second international trophy of his career in front of an adoring Portuguese crowd.
“We have the privilege of having the best player in the world, who is a scoring machine,” said Portugal defender Pepe, who spent many seasons alongside Ronaldo at Real Madrid.
“Cristiano is our leader and it’s always better to have the best player in the world with us,” added veteran centre-back Jose Fonte.
Portugal, though, made it to the final four of the first ever Nations League without their all-time record goalscorer.
Ronaldo took a break from international football after the World Cup and only returned for Portugal’s first two Euro 2020 qualifiers in March.
His return did not go to plan as Fernando Santos’s men were held at home by Ukraine and Serbia, while the Juventus forward limped off injured just 30 minutes into the second fixture of a double header.
In his absence, Bernardo Silva has come to the fore with the Manchester City midfielder, who was hailed by club boss Pep Guardiola as the outstanding player in the Premier League this season, also becoming the principal creative force for his country.
City may soon have another Portuguese star on their books with the English champions among a host of clubs chasing Joao Felix.
The 19-year-old is in line for his international debut in Wednesday’s semi-final against Switzerland after a stellar season with Benfica.
Felix scored 20 goals in all competitions, including a Europa League quarter-final hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt, with Benfica fearing his 120 million euro ($134 million) buyout clause will be activated this summer.
That would make him the most expensive Portuguese player ever, even ahead of Ronaldo, but Felix admitted to being star struck on his first few days training alongside the five-time world player of the year.
“It was weird, I had never seen him live so close,” Felix told Benfica’s website. “I said to my colleagues and best friends later when I got home that it looked like it was in career mode on PlayStation.”
Switzerland do not possess the same star power, although Xherdan Shaqiri will arrive in Porto as a newly crowned European champion at club level with Liverpool.
However, Vladimir Petkovic’s men have shown their ability to spring a huge surprise just to make it to the last four.
Needing to beat the number one ranked side in the world, Belgium, by two goals in their final Nations League group game, Switzerland trailed 2-0 before roaring back for a thrilling 5-2 win.