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Portugal show they are so much more than Ronaldo

Jun 19, 2024 12:41 PM IST

Teammates could use the attention on him to Portugal’s advantage in comeback win against Czech Republic

Just after the final whistle, television cameras panned on Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portugal skipper exulted before hugging Francisco Conceição, the man whose stoppage-time winner helped his team beat the Czech Republic 2-1 on Tuesday in their group game at Euro 2024.

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo and second goal-scorer, Portugal's forward #26 Francisco Conceicao celebrate(AFP)
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo and second goal-scorer, Portugal's forward #26 Francisco Conceicao celebrate(AFP)

The 21-year-old Francisco, the son of former Portugal star Sergio Conceição, had been on the field for seven minutes, when with just his second touch of the match and his first shot, he got the goal that sent Portugal into a frenzy at the end of a crazy, rain-drenched match that had swung from one extreme to the other.

The 39-year-old Ronaldo, who had some really good chances of his own, would have known that this is how the game goes sometimes but this is exactly that kind of adrenaline rush that still keeps him on the field (in his sixth Euro championships), striving not just for goals but eternal glory.

Much of the buzz before the game was about Ronaldo. Will he start? Should he start? Is he better off from the bench? Does he hold the team back? But one look at fans who turned up in his No.7 jerseys suggested that all those questions really didn’t matter.

They just wanted to watch Ronaldo play, score a few goals while at it and help Portugal win.

“Cristiano is in the national team on merit. Nobody gets into the national team just by having a name. Cristiano scored 51 goals in 50 games (for Al-Nassr last season),” Portugal coach Roberto Martinez said of the 39-year-old forward before the match.

And when Ronaldo was named in the starting XI, social media went into overdrive. Partly because people know what he can do and partly because of what he can’t. Still, many might argue that what he has lost in pace, he has perhaps made up in experience.

But it is not just his experience that matters. It is also that of his team-mates — how to get not distracted by the presence of Ronaldo; how to use it; how to play off him if need be. This is where Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Vitinha will have to use their football intelligence. They have a legendary card but if it isn't played at the right time, it doesn't matter.

Such is Ronaldo’s aura that the opposition will still not leave him alone and that is something his team-mates took full advantage of in the first half.

The 74.7% possession stat in the first half showed how Portugal dominated the proceedings but despite making daft choices and looking downright clumsy at times, the Czech team would get things right when it really mattered. It was heroic, it was mad and somehow, there was always a body in the way.

In the 32nd minute, Ronaldo came close but his strike was repelled by Czech goalkeeper Jindrich Stanek. The entire Czech side had just one touch in the opposition box in the first half even as Rafael Leao, Joao Cancelo, Vitinha, Silva and Ronaldo launched wave after attacking wave for Portugal. It only seemed like a matter of time before Martinez’s side would score.

It seemed like that but it went the other way when, in a rare foray up the field, it was Czech Republic that scored in the 62nd minute. Portugal stuttered for a moment and with a brilliant curling shot from 22 yards, Lukáš Provod suddenly put his team up. Against the run of play? You bet.

The lead didn’t last long. A Robin Hranáč own-goal helped Portugal draw level in the 69th minute. Ronaldo and his team could breathe easy but even now they stayed the course and didn’t panic. They were forced to dig deep and they did just that.

Portugal kept attacking, the Czech kept defending until Conceição, the player Martinez says is an ‘exceptional little fire-cracker’, scored the winner from six yards out just minutes after coming on. Sometimes, the stars have to align in a different way.

"Things were tough for us today, but for the way they reacted, we deserved to win,” said Martínez. “Francisco is the ultimate example of “earning it”. He showed he was ready to help the squad. He's a very mature player and has a nose for danger in the box. Francisco is doing what he has done for the past four months for his club team. It's not easy; he showed character and his worth.”

The Czechs will walk away knowing that they deserved at least a draw but luck didn’t quite go their way when they wanted it to the most. Portugal, however, lacked ideas in the final third and they will need to change that in the next game against Turkey.

But still a win is a win and that will come as a big relief to Portugal and Ronaldo.

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