Analysis: Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal's greatest threat... and liability?

Zonal Marking editor Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's Euro 2012 StatsZone app to analyse Cristiano Ronaldo's group-stage performances

With two fine goals in yesterday’s crucial win over Holland, Cristiano Ronaldo was inevitably the man who grabbed the headlines. Win, lose or draw, he's always the star attraction – even if his performance is significantly weaker than most of his teammates, as against Denmark on Wednesday.

Ronaldo has had a strange Euro 2012 so far. Against Germany in Portugal’s opener, Paulo Bento decided to play a very defensive system, putting nine men behind the ball, soaking up pressure and looking to play on the counter-attack through Ronaldo and Nani on the flanks.

Ronaldo turned in a good defensive display, showing willingness to track back and help Fabio Coentrao defend Portugal’s left flank, but his attacking contribution was disappointing. He was playing against Jerome Boateng in Germany’s supposed problem position at right-back, but played the role intelligently, staying in deep, narrow positions. Ronaldo couldn’t cut inside and shoot – and when an excellent ball from Joao Moutinho created his best goalscoring opportunity, Boateng made a superb block.

It felt like Ronaldo had used up a tournament’s worth of defensive discipline in that opening game, because in Portugal’s next game, the 3-2 win against Denmark, he did absolutely no tracking back at all. Danish right-back Lars Jacobsen continually pushed forward down the touchline to stretch the play, and received constant long diagonal passes from the midfield. Sometimes Ronaldo was simply too lazy to get back into position, on other occasions he made an effort, but found himself caught out of position. Both the Denmark goals came from that side.

He became frustrated by the taunts of the Danish fans, who chanted "Messi!" at him towards the end of the game, angrily responding in the post-match press conference. He was also criticised for his poor finishing ability, having missing two one-on-one chances. That was a little harsh – Ronaldo had made good runs to get into the positions in the first place.

But then again, considering he was leaving Portugal so exposed at the back, he needed a solid contribution in the final third to compensate. Because of Ronaldo’s own attitude – not wanting to defend, clearly highly focused upon individual targets – he does need to score goals.

That’s exactly what he did against Holland. There was no improvement in his defensive work – Gregory van der Wiel was allowed to go forward unchecked, and although Bento seemed to have instructed his midfield to cover for Ronaldo more readily, Portugal still conceded after a move from that flank.

But with Holland desperate for a two-goal victory, and constantly pushing forward and leaving gaps at the back, Ronaldo thrived on the counter-attack. He increasingly started to wander inside when Portugal had the ball on the right, and his first goal was struck from a similar position to his (second) bad miss against Denmark. With Helder Postiga not providing a constant goal threat, Ronaldo becomes a second forward, with Coentrao providing width on the left.

Later on, Holland effectively played without a left-back when they brought on Ibrahim Afellay for Jetro Willems. The direct beneficiary was Nani down the right, but as Holland’s defence shuffled across from side to side, Ronaldo got space on the left, too.

Nani teed him up for Portugal’s winner, and the Real Madrid man later hit the post with another fine effort. In total, he had 12 shots – more than any other player in a single European Championships game in history. He also set up team-mates for scoring opportunities three times – one of which was Nani’s shocking miss from inside the six-yard box.

After a slow start, Portugal are now odds-on to make the semi-finals due to a great draw against the Czech Republic. Ronaldo’s battle against the speedy, energetic Theo Gebre-Selassie will be one of the individual contests of the quarter-final stage; expect Portugal to be most dangerous from their left flank, but also most vulnerable to Czech attacks down that side too.

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