It will be something of a family affair when Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal meets Spain in the first semifinal of Euro 2012 in Donetsk on Wednesday (8.45pm, Telecinco). Every time the Portuguese forward starts a move towards the Spanish goal, he’ll run into four defensive players he sees on a daily basis at Real Madrid and who have examined him in detail: Álvaro Arbeloa on the wing; Xabi Alonso in the middle and Sergio Ramos in front of Iker Casillas’ goal.
The game promises to be a fascinating match-up between two sides which, despite their club links — Portugal’s Pepe and Fábio Coentrão are also Real Madrid defenders — play very different styles of soccer.
The presence of Cristiano conditions Portugal’s style of play in the same way it also influences that of Real Madrid. Both teams stand out due to their strength in the areas and their ease at launching counterattacks.
It doesn’t matter if you know what Cristiano is going to do. He does it to you anyway"
It’s nothing like the approach of Spain, which taking its cue from Barcelona, has been accused of being too slow and deliberate with an excess of midfielders and absence of strikers.
However, it could prove effective. Portugal, like the majority of Spain’s opponents are unlikely to see much of the ball. But if Ronaldo — never looking more comfortable in a Portugal shirt — maintains the devastating counterattacking form he has shown in his last two games (scoring three goals against Holland and the Czech Republic), it may not need much possession.
Last Sunday Piqué said the Real players in the squad were instructing their teammates to focus on stopping Ronaldo. But Portuguese midfielder Custodio, who debuted at Sporting Lisbon alongside Ronaldo, said he didn’t think their experience would be of much use. “Sincerely, I think what the Real players know about Cristiano will not make things easier for them. It doesn’t matter if you know what he is going to do. He does it to you anyway. That is Cristiano’s strength.”
The Portuguese are concerned about influence from the Spanish president of UEFA’s refereeing body
Ronaldo’s starting position means he will likely set off from the area protected by Arbeloa — a matchup that renews an old tension. The pair began facing each other in the English Premier League when Ronaldo was at Manchester United and Arbeloa at Liverpool, and the Spaniard has been one of the most critical of the special treatment given to the Portuguese at Real, where he is the only player spared from defensive duties by coach José Mourinho. The pair reportedly came to blows during a training session in the tense days that followed Real’s 0-2 Champions League defeat to Barcelona in 2011.
The other figure perhaps standing tallest in Ronaldo and Portugal’s way, as some members of the Portuguese media have ironically commented, could be Ángel María Villar, the Spanish president of UEFA’s refereeing body. The David Villa strike from an offside position that knocked Portugal out of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in the round of 16 still rankles and Spain’s final group match against Croatia in Poland-Ukraine, where referee Wolfgang Stark denied the Croats two penalties, was watched with raised eyebrows in Portugal.
The Portuguese are particularly upset by a comment from Michel Platini — with whom they have a troubled relationship after the UEFA president singled it out for corruption over a match-fixing scandal involving Porto president Pinto da Costa — who recently said he wanted to see a Spain-Germany final. They are also worried the referee chosen to police the game, Turkey’s Cüneyt Çakir, lacks sufficient experience.
Aside from South Africa, Portugal has a good record against Spain in official competition. The neighbors drew 1-1 during a group match at Euro 1984, while in the group stage at Euro 2004 Portugal qualified for the quarters and sent Spain packing with a 1-0 victory. This time round, though, Spain appears the stronger. But as Real broke three of years of Barcelona dominance by winning this year’s Liga title, might Portugal, so similar to José Mourinho’s team, be the ones to break the Spanish hold on the international stage?