Armando Franca/Associated Press file photo
DONETSK, Ukraine – For Spain, it’s more about stopping one man, while for Portugal it will be about containing a whole team when the two meet in the European Championship semifinal Wednesday.
While Cristiano Ronaldo holds the keys to Portugal’s chances of taking a step closer to a first major trophy, Spain’s charge toward an unprecedented third consecutive tournament title is anchored in selfless teamwork.
Spain simply does not need a Ronaldo; Portugal desperately does.
After a difficult start to the tournament, Ronaldo has stepped up when it matters, scoring three goals in the last two games to move Portugal within touching distance of its first final since Euro 2004, where it lost on home soil to outsider Greece.
This time, Portugal will be very much the outsider at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk. The match will be broadcast on ESPN, beginning at 12:30 p.m. MDT.
“We have to be ourselves and not change the way we play just because we’re going to face the reigning World and European champion,” Portugal defender Joao Pereira said. “We’re going to play our own game.”
That is more than France did in last Saturday’s quarterfinal, when it tried to stifle Spain at the expense of its own ambition, and meekly lost 2-0.
Meek is not a word often associated with Ronaldo, whose 86 league goals in the past two seasons with Real Madrid make him the only player who comes close to rivaling Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.
Although Portugal has another skillful player in winger Nani, the team is under no illusions how to play: with fast breaks and by getting the ball up to Ronaldo as quickly as possible.
“Our weapons are not a secret,” midfielder Custodio said. “Will this be Portugal’s year? I hope so.”
Portugal beat Spain 4-0 in a friendly match in November, 2010 – Spain’s heaviest defeat since winning the World Cup.
But only victory will heal the wounds from Portugal’s ill-tempered 1-0 loss to Spain in the second round of the World Cup two years ago – in which Spain shackled Ronaldo.
Spain will be confident of doing so again, with four of Ronaldo’s teammates likely to be playing – goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa.
The three Madrid players for Portugal are Ronaldo, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao.
“I’ve spoken to (Portugal’s Madrid players), and the three of them look very good,” Alonso said.
“They’ve carried over their club form into the tournament.”
Throw in Spain’s five Barcelona players – Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas – and the match has all the elements of being a mini-Clasico.
Whether Pepe can keep his sometimes-dangerous tackling under control may prove crucial to Portugal’s chances.
The Spanish have dominated possession in every match, but have yet to provide the sparkling play many observers expected. Some are saying Spain’s suffocating ball-retention and relentless closing down has made it a boring team to watch.
“That is (the press) opinion,” Alonso said. “We’re confident in how we play, and we’re not going to change our style.
“We’re very confident and secure in how we play,” the midfielder said. “(Coach Vicente del Bosque) gives us a lot of liberty, he has a lot of faith in us, so we will continue this way.”
Alonso, who scored both goals against France, expects a close contest against the Portuguese.
“Most of our two teams remain the same as two years ago. Portugal is riding high after reaching the semifinals,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough game.”
But the measure of Spain’s confidence is that they won’t be forced into significant changes just because Ronaldo’s playing.
“We can make small adjustments, sure,” Alonso said. “But playing as a team is the best way to stop any player.”
Spain has the winning know-how, but Portugal does have one small advantage – two days longer to prepare.
“We have to live with it,” Alonso said. “It can’t be an excuse.”