Can Cristiano Ronaldo Lead Portugal to Euro 2016 Success This Summer?

Sam Pilger@sampilgerContributing Football WriterJune 5, 2016

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo stands on the pitch before the start of the Euro 2016 qualifying group I soccer match between Portugal and Denmark at the Municipal Stadium in Braga, Portugal, Thursday, Oct. 8 2015. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)
Paulo Duarte/Associated Press

It all seemed so easy for Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2004.

Twelve years ago, a 19-year-old Ronaldo helped Portugal reach the final of the European Championship.

This was a different Ronaldo: slimmer, less muscular and even less confident on the ball. But his raw talent was still obvious, and it helped take the hosts Portugal to their first final of a major competition.

Emerging from the shadows of Luis Figo as his country’s most important player, Ronaldo earned a place in the team of the tournament, and he scored twice, including when Portugal beat the Netherlands in the semi-finals.

It meant Portugal arrived for the final at the Estadio da Luz along the streets of Lisbon crammed with excited fans who appeared to already be hailing them as the winners. It was fate. This was their moment.

Of course, there would be no happy ending, and in the tournament’s biggest-ever shock, it was instead Greece who became champions with a 1-0 win.

LUCA BRUNO/Associated Press
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This proved to be a devastating loss for the young and tearful Ronaldo, but it seemed that a player with his genius would soon win a tournament.

Since then, Ronaldo has won every trophy he possibly could in club football with Manchester United and Real Madrid, as well as his three prized Ballon d’Ors, but a trophy on the international stage has so far proved beyond him.

Ronaldo has got close, taking his country to semi-final appearances at both the 2006 World Cup finals and the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, but he has failed to repeat the success of 2004.

Having already turned 31, time could be running out for Ronaldo, who would dearly love to win this tournament to help him jostle for an even better place in the pantheon of football’s greatest players.

In May, I interviewed the former Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, who told me how important Ronaldo's towering statistics were to him and how he was always very aware of them.

However, for all his statistics and his mountain of club goals, a faintly ridiculous 487 at the last count, leading Portugal to their first major tournament win would be the greatest achievement of his career.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions League final match between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid on May 28, 2016 at the Giuseppe Meazza San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy.(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

Ronaldo has always been up to the task, but crucially, so much depends on the players selected to play next to him.

There is, however, a quiet confidence building within the Portugal squad, enough for their manager, Fernando Santos, to declare, as reported by Matt Barlow of the Daily Mail: “I believe Portugal can get to the final and win, and so do the players.”

Since his appointment in September 2014, Santos has overhauled the Portuguese squad by bringing through an array of young talent to relieve the burden on Ronaldo.

Portugal will arrive in France with a midfield overflowing with players of real potential: Sporting Lisbon’s industrious Joao Mario, the flair of Valencia’s Andre Gomes and the presence of both William Carvalho and Danilo, the latter so impressive against England recently. Holding it all together is the wise old head of Joao Moutinho.

There is also the potential of the 18-year-old Renato Sanches, the owner of only four international caps, but he has already done enough to persuade Bayern Munich to spend an initial £27 million on him. He could make an impact at the tournament.

But so far, this tide of youthful talent has not translated into an avalanche of goals, and during qualifying, Portugal only managed 11 from their eight games.

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during the friendly football match between Portugal and Belgium at Magalhaes Pessoa stadium in Leiria, Portugal on March 29, 2016. / AFP / FRANCISCO LEONG        (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/G

It is an oddity the Portugal squad for the tournament in France only has one recognised striker in Eder, a goalless failure at Swansea City during the first half of last season. So far he boasts an international record of just two goals from 25 appearances.

For all the invention and flair lurking in midfield, Portugal continue to struggle to find a player up front who can take advantage of it all.

It means Ronaldo often has to play in a more central role, and during the qualifiers, he continued to drive the side with five of Portugal’s 11 goals.

“Portugal is not a one-man team,” Santos said ahead of the friendly against England, per Jonathan Green of the Daily Star, but it is the sort of statement a manager has to make.

The truth is Ronaldo can only drag Portugal so far, and if they are to prosper at Euro 2016, several of their young talents will have to step up to help him.

In 2004, Ronaldo stepped up to help the old guard of Figo and Rui Costa reach the final, and now he will be hoping this new generation can do the same for him and help take Portugal all the way in France.