Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo delivered a match-winning performance against the Netherlands at the European Championship when he and his team needed it most.
Ronaldo entered last night’s match under pressure to reproduce his club form after failing to get a goal or assist in Portugal’s opening two games. He scored twice in a 2-1 win that took the Portuguese into the quarterfinals and eliminated the Dutch at the group stage for the first time since 1980.
“I understood Ronaldo had a lot of criticism in the first games but he was decisive today,” Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk said in a news conference after the match in Kharkiv, Ukraine. “Things can change very fast in football.”
Portugal gave away a two-goal lead in its 3-2 win against Denmark on June 13 and Ronaldo was criticized by Portuguese media for being unable to replicate the form that saw him get 46 goals in 38 league games for Real Madrid last season. He reacted by saying even World Player of the Year Lionel Messi can’t do it all on his own, citing the Argentine’s failure to help his country get beyond the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup and last year’s Copa America.
Ronaldo, for whom Real paid Manchester United a world record 80 million pounds ($125 million) in 2009, also struck the post twice last night in a display that lifted his team into a June 21 quarterfinal against the Czech Republic. Germany finished atop Group B after beating Denmark 2-1.
Ronaldo had a tournament-high 10 goal attempts last night, half of which were on target. He took control after Rafael Van der Vaart put the Netherlands ahead in the 11th minute with a curling shot from the edge of the area.
The tying 28th-minute goal was Ronaldo’s first at a major tournament since completing the scoring in a 7-0 rout of North Korea at the 2010 World Cup. He praised his teammates after being named as the man of the match.
“The team were spectacular,” said Ronaldo, who became the first Portuguese player to score at five major tournaments. “We have achieved our big aim of qualifying for the quarterfinals.”
Portugal coach Paolo Bento refused to single out the Real Madrid forward after being asked to summarize his performance.
“In some games some players show more of an individual quality and in other games less,” Bento told reporters. “From the point of view of how we played as a team, I’m very proud.”
The Netherlands, the World Cup runner-up two years ago, had entered Euro 2012 as the bookmakers’ third favorite behind defending champion Spain and record three-time winner Germany.
Needing to beat Portugal by at least two goals to stand a chance of advancing, the Netherlands coach sacrificed defensive midfielder Mark van Bommel, his son-in-law. He replaced him with Van der Vaart, who scored off Arjen Robben’s pass as his team pushed Portugal back.
“We had to take a risk and go forward,” Van Marwijk said.
Portugal responded and started to find gaps in its opponent’s offensive formation.
Ronaldo struck the foot of a post five minutes after Van der Vaart’s opener and had a 21st-minute header parried by Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. The Portugal captain made it 1-1 after timing his run to meet Joao Pereira’s pass.
Two minutes after half time, Ronaldo had a shot blocked after being sent clear. He later burst down his flank to set up Fabio Coentrao and then Nani, whose 77th-minute shot was blocked by Stekelenburg on the goal line.
Nani returned the favor a minute later and Ronaldo turned past defender Gregory van der Wiel before passing the ball into the net to give Portugal the lead.
Van Der Vaart and Ronaldo then each struck a post in the game’s final stages. When the final whistle blew, Ronaldo fell on his back and pumped both arms skywards.
“We’ve reached a very important aim for the team and for the whole country,” Bento said. “We have to keep up our work and the quality that we have shown so far. Then maybe we can even reach the semifinals.”