It's hard to imagine now, that before Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice against the Netherlands, sending Portugal to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, fans back home were so disappointed with his performance against Denmark that they were calling for him to be replaced in the lineup by Silvestre Varela. But against Czech Republic, Ronaldo showed why this year, he deserves to win back the Ballon d'Or for the world's best player.
Theo Gebre Selassie's man-marking job in the first half-hour limited Portugal's star, but as soon as he drifted into the middle, he created chances: one effort beaten away by Petr Cech (but pulled back for an earlier foul) and then a sublime chest, turn and volley against Cech's near post.
It was a similar story in the second half, first his 25-yard free-kick cannoned off the post (the fourth time he has struck the woodwork at the Euros), and then, in the 79th-minute, the breakthrough came: a burst past Selassie to dive onto Joao Moutinho's right-wing cross, heading the ball down for it to bounce up and beyond Cech.
Poor Selassie was one of the breakout stars of this tournament but he had no answer to the Portuguese captain. And the Czech defender's pre-match comment, "I won't be afraid because I'm up against Ronaldo, and anyway, I think Messi is better." does not look quite so clever now.
In two matches, Ronaldo has put his stamp on the tournament, and though he has only scored three goals, he has the potential to make this tournament his own just as Michel Platini did when France won it in 1984. Already the records have been tumbling: his goals against Holland made him the first Portuguese to score in five different major international tournaments, and the header against the Czechs gave him six goals combined in all his Euros appearances. Only Alan Shearer (seven) and Michel Platini (nine) have scored more.
"We're happy that we reached the semifinal," Ronaldo said after the game. "We're ready, we're confident and the team is mature. The most important thing is that I scored, the team won, we all played well and we're in the semifinal. Our objective was achieved. The next target is reaching the final."
Against the Czechs, his rivalry with Cech was unavoidable. At times it looked like the two of them were just facing off in a game of one-on-one. In the group games, Cech had looked a shadow of the goalkeeper that almost single-handedly repelled wave after wave of Barcelona attacks in the Champions League semifinal, and saved three out of six Bayern Munich penalties in the Champions League final. Errors in the group games had restarted the debate in the Czech Republic over its Player of the Year: why can't he replicate his club performances for his country?
But against Ronaldo, and as captain in the absence of Tomas Rosicky, Cech did just that: he kept out Ronaldo's first-half snapshot and made a super diving stop to push Joao Moutinho's dipping shot over the bar. As it did during Chelsea's European run, too, the woodwork also came to his rescue. Twice Ronaldo smashed efforts against the post with Cech floundering. But he could do nothing about Ronaldo's decisive header, though he did well to push out Joao Moutinho's rising effort later. In the end even Cech had no response to Ronaldo.
There are several motivations driving Ronaldo. In the short-term, it's to win back the Ballon d'Or from Lionel Messi, who has won it for the last three years (Ronaldo won it in 2008). Back in Portugal, he plays in the shadow of Eusebio, but dragging this team to the semifinals, the furthest it has ever reached in a competition away from home, brings him ever closer to Portugal's most iconic sportsman.
There remains the tantalizing possibility of Ronaldo coming up against three of his Real Madrid teammates -- Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas -- that make up Spain's defense in a semifinal next week (Spain has to get past France first, of course). The Spanish players will not be looking forward to that. Ronaldo, meanwhile, is now just two games from eclipsing Eusebio once and for all.
"It's far harder for Ronaldo to win something with his national team than it is for Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta or the German players," said USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann on the BBC. "But he needs to win something at this level to prove he is an all-time great player."
I don't agree: in the last two games alone, Ronaldo showed he deserves to be among such elevated company. As Carlos Queiroz, the coach who convinced Manchester United to sign him from Sporting Lisbon at age 18, and who later appointed him captain of the Portugal side, told France Football: "His challenge is to pass from a soloist to a maestro, to gain wisdom in the game, to be a master, and to add his own name to those few like Pele, Eusebio, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Platini and Maradona, who taught us to dream of football."
That time has now come.