Few players command the attention like Cristiano Ronaldo. To be the main man at Madrid takes broad shoulders, sublime talent and an unadulterated love of the limelight. The focus won’t be any less intense in Brazil. Ronaldo wouldn’t want it any other way.
But genuine questions can be asked about the former Manchester United winger, both of fitness and mentality. The former has seen Ronaldo miss the majority of Portugal’s warm-up games and limp out of training. He suffered with a battery of problems towards the end of the season and looked somewhat less than fully fit in the Champions League final.
Is the strain showing? Even Ronaldo can only take so much. Madrid’s season was long, hard and tumultuous. At one point Los Blancos looked favourites to land La Liga; they finished third and tailed off badly. Matters were much better in the cups – and Ronaldo played a decisive role in the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich – but the final itself wasn’t one of his better days.
And that points to the second issue. Ronaldo is clearly a big-name player, but is he a big-game player? A much younger Ronaldo couldn’t help Portugal beat Greece on home soil at Euro 2004, he has only two World Cup goals to his name to date and while he scored in this year’s Champions League final, it was a last-minute penalty when the score was already 3-1. Atletico Madrid were beaten; Ronaldo piled on yet celebrated like it was his goal that won it.
The counter-argument says Ronaldo has risen to the occasion when it mattered most. His hat-trick against Sweden confirmed Portugal’s place at the World Cup and Madrid had a mental block at the Champions League semi-final stage after getting that far and no further for the last three years. He scored twice in Munich to destroy the holders and he was injured in the final. Flat-track bullies don’t win the Ballon d’Or.
At 29, Ronaldo will never have a better chance to make his mark on the World Cup. He captains a good Portugal team, but probably not a great one. The attack is particularly lightweight, Ronaldo aside, and so the burden of goals is most definitely his. Five other players in the 23 have reached double figures for Portugal – one is centre-back Bruno Alves – but none really strike fear in a defender’s heart at the highest international level.
Given Germany’s reported problems in defence Ronaldo could make hay. It would be a good start for him and for Portugal and both need to get the tournament underway in the best possible fashion – Portugal to try and ensure another generation of talented players don’t endure underwhelming international careers, and Ronaldo to continue to justify the hype.
Keep an eye out for…
Toni Kroos – Germany: The Bayern Munich midfielder has been linked with a move to Manchester United amid a contract dispute with the Bavarians. If Kroos is truly worth the money he is said to be demanding, this is his chance to show it.
He is though only one of a packed Germany midfield and standing out among the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira is easier said than done. But if Joachim Low’s team are to turn the plaudits they routinely receive into the prizes that have been missing since 1996, Kroos is one of a number who can make a difference.
Christian Atsu – Ghana: One of the army of Chelsea players sent on loan, winger Atsu was bought from Porto last summer and immediately sent to Vitesse Arnhem. He impressed the Dutch club’s fans, winning the player of the year award, and has a chance to show his parent club what they’re missing.
But the 22-year-old’s senior club career has yet to reach 100 games, so inexperience is definitely a factor. Yet his form in the Eredivisie was enough to confirm Chelsea have a prodigious talent on their hands and Atsu could provide the spark needed for the Black Stars to upset the odds.
Julian Green – United States: The 19-year-old Bayern forward’s inclusion raised eyebrows as it effectively came at the expense of the United States’ record scorer, Landon Donovan. For a youngster with two international caps and one game for Bayern’s first team, that’s quite a level of infamy.
Green’s involvement is seen as confirmation that Coach Jurgen Klinsmann is thinking more about 2018 than 2014. A record of 15 goals in 23 games for the Bayern second team suggests Green will have a bigger impact in four years – but don’t be shocked to see him make an impression in Brazil.