In vintage performance, Cristiano Ronaldo shines
By RYAN LUCAS
WARSAW, Poland (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo had it all - the deft touches, the blazing runs with the ball, the sulking, the petulance, and, in the end, that golden scoring touch.
The Portugal captain may have answered the critics who said he couldn't come through for the national team, that he couldn't duplicate on the international stage the club form that has made him one of the top players in the world.
"Our journey has been very hard. We overcame one more hurdle. We'll wait and see who we get in the semifinals," said Ronaldo, who headed in the winner Thursday to beat Czech Republic 1-0 to reach the European Championship semifinals.
"Expectations are high. We have to keep our feet firmly on the ground and take one step at a time. We have to win the next game. The goal is to get to the final."
There were no taunting chants of "Messi, Messi, Messi" directed at Ronaldo at the National Stadium as there have been at past matches, but the packed crowd whistled when the Real Madrid star touched the ball. And they whistled when he stepped up to take a free kick.
"Ronaldo is a very good player. He knows how to play. He doesn't have any problems when he penetrates the defense," Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek said. "There has been talk of (Lionel) Messi or Ronaldo, but I think both are good and hard to defend."
It's that very comparison with Barcelona's Argentine maestro that has dogged Ronaldo since he moved to Real Madrid three years ago. And on most occasions, it's Messi who has come out on top.
He has claimed three straight Ballon d'Or trophies since Ronaldo won the award in 2008, and his Barcelona side ruled the Spanish league for years until Real Madrid finally took the title this year. Even then, Ronaldo finished second to Messi in the goal-scoring table.
And then there were Ronaldo's national team scoring woes. Over an 18-match period under the previous coach, he scored only twice - once from the penalty spot.
He managed just one goal each at Euro 2008 and the last two World Cups, earning the scorn of many a Portugal fan and a reputation for failing to shine on football's grandest stages.
He looked headed down that same road at Euro 2012 with lusterless - and scoreless - performances in Portugal's first two matches against Germany and Denmark.
Then came his two-goal game against the Netherlands, perhaps the finest match of his international career. He followed that up with his winning header against the Czechs to put Portugal into the semifinals.
On Thursday in Warsaw, he roamed from the left side to the right, made darting runs at the Czech defense and showed his traditional flare with the ball at his feet. He hit the post twice. He sulked. He flapped his arms in frustration when teammates failed to pass the ball his way.
But unlike at past tournaments when Portugal was counting on his talents, this time he came through.
He dropped to his knees with the final whistle and clenched his fists, then rose to catch teammate Miguel Veloso as he jumped into his arms in celebration.
With Ronaldo finding his form, Portugal may very well be able to ride him all the way to Kiev - if the team can beat either Spain or France in the semifinals in Donetsk.
Updated June 21, 2012