Portugal fans and neutrals alike hoping for a splash edition of the Cristiano Ronaldo roadshow had their appetite satisfied as he single-handedly steered his country into the Euro 2012 semi-finals by beating the Czech Republic 1-0.
Ronaldo showed the same kind of sparkle that saw the Portugal captain dominate play and claim a brace in his team’s 2-1 defeat of the Netherlands last Sunday – goals he had dedicated to his son, who turned two the same day.
So often maligned for failing to recapture his Real Madrid form when wearing the Portugal shirt, Ronaldo’s 79th-minute header took his Euro 2012 tally to three, making him joint top scorer with Germany’s Mario Gomez – plus Russia’s Alan Dzagoev and Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic, whose teams failed to advance from the group stage.
A divisive figure around whom Portugal are often accused of creating a cult of personality, Ronaldo won the loudest cheer from his fans in Warsaw’s National Stadium when the announcer reeled off each squad, but earned catcalls from Czech supporters when he stepped up to take free kicks.
The high-profile player – officially the most-tweeted at Euro 2012 according to UEFA – is often a target for his opponents’ supporters. Denmark’s fans even tried to get under his skin by chanting the name of his nemesis in the Spanish league, Lionel Messi, during their country’s 3-2 loss to Portugal last week.
That, coupled with repeated media criticism, has led Portugal to rally round their captain and, earlier in the tournament, to shun the press in protest – though the man himself did speak to Portuguese television.
The 27-year-old striker struggled early in the half against the Czechs in part because of the lacklustre performance of his team-mates.
The frustration showed as he and Czech defender Petr Jiracek avoided a booking from referee Howard Webb after they angrily pawed at each other in front the Czechs’ goal.
He was finally to find his stride 25 minutes in, when midfielder Joao Moutinho fed him the ball, only for Czech keeper and captain Petr Cech to block his strike. Eight minutes later his attempted bicycle kick went wide, followed almost immediately by an off-target free kick.
Seconds into stoppage time, he notched up a sublime effort while beating a cluster of defenders, chesting the ball and tapping it into the line of fire – only to blast against the post.
After the return from the dressing room, Ronaldo showed his hunger was rising, shooting a free kick wide, and setting up a string of further attacks.
Dominating play, Portugal continued to pound the Czech defence, and Moutinho’s cross found an advancing Ronaldo, who leapt to take the header, beating a floundering Cech to take Portugal through.