Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo will rarely get a better chance than at Euro 2016 to land the only major honour lacking in his glittering career by leading his country to victory in a major finals.
It took Ronaldo 117 minutes to get a meaningful touch in the Croatia penalty area in the last 16 match against on Saturday, yet he was decisive in helping his country to reach another European Championship quarter-final.
Ronaldo’s old friend Ricardo Quaresma applied the finishing touch after the Real Madrid star’s initial effort — Portugal’s first on target — was parried by Danijel Subasic into the Besiktas winger’s path for a simple finish to snatch a 1-0 win on Saturday.
It was a cruel end for Croatia, who were arguably the best side in the group stages.
Croatia coach Ante Cacic believed his team had deserved to win the match, knowing that the half of the draw they are in arguably offers an easier path to the final than the one containing France, Germany, title holders Spain, Italy and England.
“I think Portugal are the favourites now (to reach the final),” Cacic said.
The early signs of Portugal’s campaign were not promising.
They were the only side to progress from the group stages with three draws — finishing behind Hungary and tournament debutants Iceland.
If they are to go all the way, a seemingly inconsequential goal by Iceland’s Arnor Ingvi Traustason will have played a huge role.
Portugal had settled for a 3-3 draw with Hungary in their final group game having come from behind three times as Ronaldo scored his first two goals of the tournament.
Yet, instead of having to face England in the last 16, then most likely France and then Germany or Spain to reach the final, Traustason’s injury-time goal to beat Austria 2-1 dumped Ronaldo’s men into third place in the group, but onto the weaker side of the draw.
Portugal next face Poland in the quarter-finals in Marseille, while a mouthwatering clash with Madrid teammate Gareth Bale and Wales or Belgium, should they see off Hungary, is likely to await the winners in the semis.
– No Euros love affair –
Ronaldo’s relationship with the Euros has been a complicated one. He has already broken records as the only player to score in four editions of the competition and for appearances, yet Portugal’s exits have been among the most painful moments of his career.
There were tears when Portugal shockingly lost 1-0 on home soil in the final to rank outsiders Greece in 2004.
In 2008 he was expected to shine as World Player of the Year, but scored only once as A Seleccao fell to Germany in the quarter-finals.
Four years ago in Donetsk he looked to the sky and mouthed “no justice” as Spain prevailed on penalties in the semi-finals. He had chosen to take the last of Portugal’s five spot kicks, hoping for his glory moment, but instead did not even get a chance to take one as Cesc Fabregas converted to give Spain an unassailable 4-2 lead.
“There will be many other opportunities to win in Europe throughout my career, and make up for this huge disappointment,” Ronaldo said as a 19-year-old after the 2004 defeat to Greece.
Yet, at 31, even if the does make a fifth Euros in 2020, he will be far from his prime.
A three-time World Player of the Year and Champions League winner, Ronaldo is approaching last chance saloon to crown his career with international glory.
Yet, thanks to the luck of the draw, his last chance has never been a better one.