Hands all over the western region of the Iberian Peninsula were hovering dangerously close to the panic button on Tuesday, as Cristiano Ronaldo sat out training with the Portugal national team.
Fortunately for those concerned (and there were many), it appears to have been little more than a cautionary measure. Ronaldo has been suffering with a slight problem with his left foot in recent weeks, but it is unlikely to prevent him from playing in one of his country’s most important matches of the last few years.
While it is inherently true that in football “one player does not make a team,” as with anything there are players that test such assertions, and perhaps none more so in the modern game than Ronaldo.
He lifts those around him beyond their normal boundaries.
For Real Madrid he is vitally important. For Portugal, where his team-mates are not so blessed with talent and undoubtedly less consistent, he becomes even more imperative.
As such, the forthcoming World Cup play-off with Sweden (first leg on Friday in Lisbon, second on Tuesday in Stockholm) has been widely billed as a showdown between Ronaldo and another talismanic player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The mercurial Ibrahimovic has been the more vocal of the pair in the build-up, suggesting that Portugal are less deserving of a spot because they failed to finish top of a group where their main rivals were Russia and Israel.
“We finished second in a group with Germany, who I consider the strongest squad in Europe, while they finished second in a group they should have won,” Ibrahimovic stated, according to the BBC.
"So I think we deserve to go to Brazil more than they do."
That does not mean the Swedes are favourite though.
“With the squad and the individuals they have, Portugal are naturally the favourites,” Ibrahimovic added, as transparent a piece of mind games as you are ever likely to read.
If Sweden are to win, they will need to find a way to neutralise Ronaldo. But has he been less effective for his national team than his club?
Ronaldo's Qualifying Contribution
Portugal scored 20 goals in their ten World Cup qualification matches—with Ronaldo (perhaps surprisingly) scoring just four of them.
To put that in some context, that was a total matched by central defender Bruno Alves (who played fewer minutes during the qualification campaign) and bettered by the ever-green Helder Postiga, who notched six times in total.
Ronaldo was also booked on four occasions, for which he earned two separate one-match bans. The second was somewhat controversial: In similar circumstances to Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo earned a fourth yellow card for dissent in the 90th minute of his country’s draw with Israel, a result that effectively guaranteed that Russia would top the group.
But the booking meant the forward would miss the last game of qualification and not be at risk of a ban for the two-legged play-off, a presumed piece of planning and gamesmanship that FIFA ultimately deemed there was not enough evidence of to take action against.
A booking in the first match against Israel resulted in a similar sanction, as he missed a subsequent meeting with Azerbaijan. Both games without Ronaldo Portugal won comfortably—albeit they were probably expected to anyway.
The lack of goals, and excessive number of yellow cards, hints at Ronaldo’s role with his national team—he is required to take on far more defensive and creative responsibility for a team that lacks quality in key areas.
"Portugal doesn’t have as big a pool of players to pick from as [Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Spain],” as national team coach Paulo Bento acknowledged to FIFA recently.
Bento has tended to play Ronaldo in what we must presume to be his favoured position these days—cutting inside from the left wing. It is the culmination of ten years as an international (Ronaldo made his debut in 2002), where his skills can be best employed for the team’s benefit.
Gone are the days as a lone striker in Carlos Queiroz’s defence-first system, a tactic that saw the goals dry up almost completely for the country’s best player. But he has still struggled somewhat for form in recent international matches.
Per ESPNFC, Ronaldo had 44 shots on goal in his eight qualification matches—with exactly half of them being on target. From that, a return of four goals is somewhat average, an indication that he has not been the rapier-like threat we are used to at club level.
Then again, it must be noted that Ronaldo was singled out for individual attention in every single match he played, an acknowledgement of the threat he poses, but equally a tactic that will have made it harder for him to be truly effective.
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With just two assists also to his name, it is probably fair to say that Portugal’s fortunes have risen and fallen with those of their star player.
He failed to notch in the away defeat to Russia and the away draw with Israel, two results which ultimately condemned El Seleccao to the predicament they now find themselves in.
Indeed, it is perhaps interesting to note that he has perhaps been more effective in friendlies than qualifiers over the last 18 months.
His Goals in Qualification
That does not mean Ronaldo has been poor, or has let his country down. It is just an acceptance of the fact that he is integral to the fortunes of any side he plays in.
Three of his four goals in qualification came in one match—the 4-2 away win over Northern Ireland. In the process, Ronaldo overtook Eusébio as the country’s all-time leading scorer.
The goals against Northern Ireland underline his threat in the air—something that has become increasingly prominent in recent years.
The other strike came in the very first game of qualification—a slender away win against Luxembourg. In a virtuouso performance, Ronaldo equalised before half-time and was then the driving force as Postiga eventually grabbed the winner.
In friendlies he has been more prolific, scoring in each of the last three friendlies against Netherlands (a 1-0 win), Croatia (a 1-1 draw) and Ecuador (a 3-2 loss).
If Portugal are considered a team no top nation would be comfortable facing in a knockout contest, then Ronaldo is a key reason why.
The Big Showdown
What has happened has happened, now 180 minutes of football (and Ibrahimovic) separate Ronaldo and Portugal from where they want to be.
The Portuguese publication Mais Futebol felt compelled to note this week that Portugal have never failed to qualify for a major tournament with Ronaldo in their ranks, a backing of his credentials.
"He can make a difference as he did in other times," Bruno Alves told the outlet. "Ronaldo has a lot of influence on the game of Portugal, he is the best in the world, he can make a difference in this game like he has already done several times."
What is certain is that Ronaldo will take the responsibility on his shoulders. It backfired at Euro 2012 (he opted to take the fifth penalty in the shootout against Spain, and never got the opportunity), but that is price you sometimes pay if you want to be the main man.
"I decided to take the fifth penalty," Ronaldo told Thai television in 2012, according to ESPNFC. "Anything could have happened. People say this and that, but these are the decisions you take on the feelings you have in the moment."
Portugal will be hoping for a different outcome this time around.