Thursday June 21st, 2012

WARSAW� -- Three thoughts after Portugal's 1-0 victory against the Czech Republic sent the Portuguese to the semifinals of Euro 2012:

Cristiano Ronaldo is a fantastic player. We knew this already, of course, but Ronaldo was terrific in three different positions against the Czechs: as a winger, as a No. 10 and as a center-forward. He loomed over the game like a colossus in the way that few players in the history of soccer are able to do, considering there are 11 players on each team. Dribbling, passing, shooting, turning, whooshing past defenders, unleashing venomous free kicks, hitting the post for the third and fourth times of Euro 2012 (more than any team in the tournament) and, yes, scoring: Ronaldo did all of that on Thursday, and he also produced a range of emotions that left little to the imagination, showing disgust (with his teammates), anger at himself (over the number of posts he hit) and, finally, exultant joy on his deserved game-winning goal. Watching Ronaldo these days is like watching a Method actor in his prime, and every bit of it is entertaining.

Portugal really has changed its style. In years past, the Portuguese were often something of a Spain Lite, relying on possession and skill. But these days they rely much more on the on the transition game and the skill-at-speed of wingers Ronaldo and Nani. (The central midfielders, João Moutinho, Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso, are useful but nowhere near the skill purveyors of a classic No. 10 like Rui Costa used to be.) Perhaps not surprisingly, Portugal looks a bit like Real Madrid under José Mourinho, minus an effective center forward. (Hélder Postiga and Hugo Almeida have been poor, to say the least.) If Portugal gets another crack at Spain in a major tournament in the semis, it might look like a Spanish Superclásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Ronaldo may have already done enough for the FIFA Ballon d'Or. The endless comparisons to Lionel Messi can get overdone, but by leading Portugal to the semifinals of Euro 2012, by becoming the tournament's co-leading scorer (with three goals) and by winning the Spanish league title (over Messi) with crazy offensive stats, Ronaldo would now be my choice for the 2012 award given to the world's best player. Plenty can still happen, of course, and I still think it's silly that FIFA doesn't give the award to the best player over the course of a season (instead of a calendar), but Ronaldo has been remarkable this year. Take a bow.

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