Madrid (AFP) – Portugal felt the full range of emotions during the Euro 2020 group stage and with Cristiano Ronaldo in the groove again, they can really begin to believe.
After scoring three late goals to beat Hungary, Portugal were shaken by a 4-2 loss to Germany, only for a 2-2 draw against France to restore morale and ensure they snuck out of Group F in third place.
The result is a last-16 clash with Belgium in Seville on Sunday, when one of the tournament favourites will bow out in what is surely the blockbuster tie of the round.
One of the frontrunners for the Golden Boot will fall too, with Ronaldo and Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku both in contention. Ronaldo leads the scoring charts on five goals with Lukaku not far behind on three.
Portugal may have taken only a point from a sweaty contest with France at the Puskas Arena in Budapest but the belief and confidence gained from going toe-to-toe with the world champions could be pivotal for the rest of their tournament.
After chaos against Germany came concentration against the French, a committed, organised and aggressive performance which was a reminder of what carried Portugal to success at Euro 2016 and in the Nations League three years later.
“We were strong and consistent. The players helped each other, we had possession, we attacked well. We improved a lot from the game against Germany,” said Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos afterwards.
Santos had responded too, reacting to criticism by reverting to his traditional 4-3-3 system of the past two years and making some bold changes to his starting line-up.
– ‘We can beat anyone’ –
William Carvalho and Bruno Fernandes, who both struggled in the first two games, made way for the young Renato Sanches and the veteran Joao Moutinho, who both rose to the challenge against Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante.
Sanches brought some much-needed dynamism to the team while the 34-year-old Moutinho’s surgical passing gave Portugal the guile and direction they had lacked against Germany.
“We can fight against the best teams,” said Santos. “Either we believe or we don’t because we can beat anyone and I’ll keep saying it — no team thinks they will have an easy time against Portugal.”
The principal threat against Belgium will be Ronaldo who, at 36, is sparkling again on the biggest stage, delivering goals and breaking records from the outset.
Ronaldo had never previously scored in six meetings with France but his two penalties means he has already achieved his best Euro tally, after scoring twice in 2004, once in 2008 and three times in both 2012 and 2016.
He has pulled five clear of Michel Platini’s previous record of nine goals in total at European Championships and became the first ever to score in five different editions of the competition.
Against France, Ronaldo also equalled the world record for international goals held since 2006 by Ali Daei, who has 109 for Iran.
There may be an added personal incentive for Ronaldo to outshine Lukaku, who pipped the Juventus striker to Serie A’s player of the season award last season despite scoring five fewer goals.
Lukaku’s 24 goals were fundamental to Inter Milan’s Scudetto success but the 28-year-old’s work rate, pressing and link-up play meant he was more of an overall contributor than Ronaldo.
In contrast, Ronaldo is all about the end-game — the goals, the victories and the trophies, with Portugal hoping to follow his lead.