Early Doors

Ronaldo has a shot at true greatness

Ronaldo celebrates in typically understated fashionAfter what felt like a very long Wednesday without football, Euro 2012 resumes this evening with the first quarter-final — Czech Republic-Portugal.

This evening's clash in Warsaw is perhaps the least appealing on paper, featuring as it does the only two sides in the last eight to reach the tournament via the play-offs. Still, after an entire day without any live football, kick-off in the Polish capital can't come soon enough.

Early Doors doesn't know what you did with your day off from the tournament, but for its part it spent most of it repeatedly watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic's exquisite volley against France from every camera angle, only while imagining the goal was in a context in which it mattered for Sweden and therefore provide conclusive proof that he does produce on the big stage. As what is potentially the goal of the tournament so far came with the Swedes already eliminated, it's another bit of ammunition for both the pro- and anti-Zlatan camp. At this point, we just need closure on the Ibra debate.

The clash at the Stadion Narodowy may not have quite the same lustre for the more casual fan as tournament favourites Germany threatening to destroy Greece, defending champions Spain facing France or Italy taking on the Harlem Globetrotters of international football, England. However, it does feature the best player and biggest star at the tournament: Milan Bar... sorry, Cristiano Ronaldo.

The second best footballer in the world finally got off and running in Portugal's decisive final Group B match against Netherlands. The 2-1 win in Kharkiv helped the 2004 finalists finish second in the Group of Death and confirmed that in-fighting in a Dutch camp during a tournament is no longer a boring cliché but is indeed a matter of fact.

Having toiled in Portugal's opening fixture against Germany and wasted several great chances against Denmark, Ronaldo scored both goals against Netherlands to finally open his account in Poland and Ukraine.

In that match the world's most expensive player had five shots on target, five off and two hit the woodwork as he looked back to his brutal best at just the right time. If Ronaldo can maintain that form for the next 11 days and lead Portugal to their first ever major trophy, he would move a significant step closer to the status of true, all-time greatness he may already believe he deserves.

Ronaldo has already graced a European Championship final and a World Cup semi-final, but he did so as part of a Portugal side that included the likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Deco. Now at the age of 27, Ronaldo is at or near the peak of his powers, and he has the opportunity to rule over a tournament.

Certainly, club football has begun to take precedence over the international game as the true pinnacle of the game as salaries have soared and matches in dozens of domestic leagues are beamed around the world, dispelling much of the exotic mystery which used to surround foreign players in international matches.

But even the genuine legends of the game to emerge over the last two decades - Zinedine Zidane, the original Ronaldo, for example - have earned that status thanks to their performances on the international stage.

Think of Zidane's most enduring moments - those that do not involve his bald pate smashing into Marco Materazzi's sternum - and while his volleyed winner for Real Madrid in the Champions League final will feature prominently, it is his magnificently fluid turns and gliding runs for France that linger longest  in the memory.

You can pick any one of the myriad one-on-ones that the original Ronaldo dispatched with such clinical brilliance for PSV, Barcelona or Internazionale, But, for ED at least, it is the sight of O Fenomeno wheeling away, coolly wagging his finger in celebration with Oliver Kahn in a heap on the ground that is the defining image of his goal-scoring greatness.

There is something about watching a player stand head and shoulders above the rest of those on the pitch whilst bearing the colours of a nation, rather than an institution, that leaves an indelible mark on the viewer.

These are the memories that Portugal's Ronaldo must create for us if he is to build a lasting legacy for himself.

It may not be the future that Ronaldo is most interested in, mind. For a player of his striking self-confidence, to be consistently regarded as second-best to Lionel Messi must be a source of constant frustration. In a season in which the Real Madrid forward has scored an incredible 65 goals for club and country to date and has already won La Liga, Messi chalked up a jaw-dropping 82 following his match-winning hat-trick in a friendly win over Brazil earlier this month.

If Ronaldo wants to usurp his Barcelona counterpart and return to the top of the pile, starring at a major finals would do him no end of favours. After all, that is something Messi has never truly done.

Messi's record at tournaments has been the subject of much criticism, and is cited as the main reason why he cannot be counted among the true greats. While the school of thought that he struggles to replicate his club form for Argentina because he misses his Barcelona colleagues is misguided, the fact is that he has never made a tournament his own.

Losing in a Copa America final five years ago is the closest Messi has come to senior international glory. With the next instalment of that competition another three years away, Ronaldo has the opportunity to steal a march on his rival.

Starting against the Czechs this evening, Ronaldo has it within his power to take this tournament and have his name inextricably linked to it in the history books. Whether his team-mates can deliver in their supporting role remains to be seen.

But if Ronaldo can lead Portugal to glory and be as brilliant for Real Madrid in the second half of the year as he was in the first, then he may well be rewarded with a second Ballon d'Or and a place among the greats to go with his winner's medal.
- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I have received many offers from English football. And I must say that I feel attraction for it. I like English football very much. I think now it's probably more interesting than Italian football. There are lots of outstanding and talented players, as is the case for Spain as well. Steven Gerrard has always been my idol. Since 10 years ago, he is among the best in the world. You see Gerrard defending and attacking here and there. I would like to be able to play more like that." - Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi reveals his admiration for English football and the England captain ahead of the two nations' meeting on Sunday.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I don't want to retire. Maybe there will a moment that the coach needs me in the future and then I will be available but for now it is time for talented young players." Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel announces his retirement from international football - sort of - following the Oranje's disastrous campaign.

COMING UP: Czech Republic v Portugal is the first of Euro 2012's quarter-finals, and you can follow our live coverage right here, with kick-off at 7:45pm. Before that Paul Parker gives us his latest thoughts on what is shaping up to be a very memorable tournament, and you will get the chance to vote in our daily Euro 2012 poll.