Shadow of Messi still hangs over faltering Ronaldo

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much of the past La Liga season was viewed as a two-way battle between a pair of footballing heavyweights.

But while Real Madrid stormed to the championship ahead of their bitter rivals Barcelona, it was the men leading their respective attacks who regularly stole the headlines.

Argentine master Lionel Messi may have set a new European record by scoring a staggering 68 goals for his club, but it was Cristiano Ronaldo who secured the ultimate prize as he took Jose Mourinho’s Real to the title.

Ronaldo’s goals tally, while not quite in the class of Messi’s, was also impressive – his second successive season of banging in 40 or more proving his undoubted quality.

Indeed, the Portuguese even quipped at the end of the campaign that he felt he had played better than Messi through the season.

While Bernabeu supporters cheered their heroes to domestic success, Ronaldo’s countrymen no doubt licked their lips in anticipation of the one-time Manchester United star setting Euro 2012 alight for Portugal.

Could a player who has so often struggled to perform on the biggest of stages finally find his feet and take his place alongside such legends as Eusebio, Pele and Maradona?

After all, to be classed as truly great, a player must also perform at major international tournaments.

Ronaldo, despite all the hype and the belief that this would finally be his turn to shine, has failed miserably so far. With his country battling to qualify for the quarter-final stages Ronaldo – now more than ever – needs to stand up and display his quality.

Portugal may have won their last group game against Denmark but their star striker very nearly cost his side victory with two quite remarkable misses.

Criticism was harsh and swift. Some fans in the crowd chanting one word at him... ‘Messi, Messi, Messi...’

Ronaldo, in return, was quick to remind them of the failures of Barcelona’s own little hero.

“You know where Messi was at this time last year?” he replied when questioned about the chanting. “He was being eliminated from the Copa America in his own country. So I think that is worse, no?”

Nevertheless, the look on Ronaldo’s face when he missed the second – and easiest – of his chances told a tale.

He knows he is struggling to meet his own high standards and will want to make amends against the Dutch tomorrow in a match which promises to provide a dramatic finale to the Group B action.

Both sides can still progress, despite Holland having lost their opening two games, but Portugal remain favourites to go through with Germany and if Ronaldo can find his form, he should be too hot to handle for a weary Holland defence.

Silvestre Varela, who netted the dramatic Portuguese winner against the Danes, stressed that captain Ronaldo’s play has been ‘fine’, before asserting that the former Ballon d’Or winner has already proven himself.

“Cristiano Ronaldo has been fine,” he said. “He is an excellent captain and player. He has nothing to prove.

“We are all united and ready to sacrifice ourselves for the team. Football is a team game. When the team is fine, players rise to the challenge.

“You cannot compare Ronaldo at Real Madrid to the one who plays for Portugal. The way a player performs for a club and for the national team are two different things.”

Varela may have bagged a sweet strike to sink Morten Olsen’s side, but he does not think that it will earn him a start against Holland.

“I always try to help this team to reach their goals, regardless of whether I am a starter or not. The coach is the one to decide,” he said. “Nani and Ronaldo have been playing very well. They work hard and are world-class players. I hope that everything will continue to go well for them.

“Any player would like to start, but if the coach decides that I have to come on as a substitute, I have to respect him and give my best for the team.

“My goal against Denmark was one of the best moments of my career.”

Like Ronaldo, the Dutch have come in for some serious criticism from supporters and pundits alike, but despite their poor form it is still possible for the likes of Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben to take their places in the quarter-finals.

Bert van Marwijk’s underfire team must first win by more than one goal against Portugal and then hope that rivals Germany do them a favour by beating Denmark.

The Dutch coach was clearly not happy with the performance of his side against the Germans, but he refuses to give up hope of qualification.

“At this level we cannot and we are not ready to give up hope,” he said. “We have the players to win this game and to qualify.”