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exclusive Cristiano Ronaldo the only man who can spoil the party for Belgium's golden generation


Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after Portugal's draw with France at the Ferenc Puskas stadium in Budapest

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after Portugal's draw with France at the Ferenc Puskas stadium in Budapest

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after Portugal's draw with France at the Ferenc Puskas stadium in Budapest

TONIGHT, Euro 2020 gives us a top team playing against a decent team –but the latter just happen to have one of the greatest footballers of all-time in their ranks.

It’s Belgium v Portugal (and Cristiano Ronaldo) in Seville at 8pm, and I can’t wait for it.

I went for the Belgians to win it at the start of the tournament – and I’m not changing my mind now.

But do I wish the draw had worked out differently for Belgium.

It’s hard to know how to start with Cristiano.

If he had been born 10 years before or after Lionel Messi, each would simply have been anointed the finest player of their generation.

Instead, we got these wonderful players together and the arguments still rage as to who is better.

What is not contested is that having them playing in the same era has driven each man to the highest peaks.

Every time Ronaldo breaks some record or other, Messi bites back with a new mark of his own. It has been a fantastic rivalry.

Thank God, too, that they played in the same league for years, so we got to see them share a pitch twice a season for a decade.

Imagine if Ronaldo had stayed for all of his career at Manchester United.

There might have been two or three Champions League clashes with Messi’s Barcelona over the years. That would have been it for these great players coming together.

Between them, they have brought fans such joys over the last 15 years, and we are all eternally grateful.

But such glories and wins and goals have not come easily.

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We hear stories about Cristiano getting up at 4am to have ice baths because he believed that having one six hours before training was the best way to get the most out of his body.

We hear about him staying on for hours after formal training has finished, working on his technique for shooting, and for taking free-kicks and penalties.

Back in my time, I shared one skill that Ronaldo has perfected, that of ‘hanging’ in the air to get a good header in. I worked for hours in training on my heading.

I took it as a badge of honour, defensively, that if the opposition goalkeeper kicked the ball out from the ground, that I would win the header.

It wasn’t so easy if the keeper kicked the ball out of his hands.


Ronaldo delivered from the spot against France

Ronaldo delivered from the spot against France

Ronaldo delivered from the spot against France

Then the wind could take it, or the ball could float – but, from the ground, I was confident my ‘spring’ would always let me win the ball.

And I scored a few goals from corners that way, too!

From the work I put into it, take it from me, that Ronaldo works so hard to get that spring that he gets when he is jumping to win a ball.

He’s a big man, anyway, and, when Cristiano jumps with that athleticism, he is impossible to stop in the air.

Such devotion to improving himself as a footballer, even at the age of 36, extends from Ronaldo’s body to his mind, too.

I was struck by the comments of Damien Duff on RTé the other night after Alvaro Morata missed a penalty for Spain in the afternoon match.

Damien noted that you could see in the Spaniard’s eyes, as he prepared to take the kick from 12 yards, that he was nervous, afraid, not sure he was going to score. Sure enough, he missed.

A couple of hours later, Ronaldo gets two penalty chances for Portugal against France.

Did we ever doubt him? Did he ever doubt himself?

Did French keeper Hugo Lloris ever believe he was going to save either of the spot-kicks?

No, no, and no, again, are the answers.

Tonight he has a chance to set an all-time international scoring record of 110 goals.

Currently, he shares the record with Iranian striker Ali Daei.

Well done to Ali Daei for getting 109 goals, but, by contrast with Ronaldo, who is playing against the best teams in the world, Ali Daei got an awful lot of those goals playing in Asian Cup and Asian World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Yemen, India and Brunei, not Brazil, Germany or England.

In his 17 years with the Portuguese team, Ronaldo has helped them win a Euro title (2016), reach the final (2004) and the semi-final (2012).

He also was there when Portugal made the 2006 World Cup semi-final.

Portugal are by no means a one-man band tonight, not with the likes of Ruben Dias, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota, Renato Sanches and Joao Moutinho in the team.

But can you see them winning without Ronaldo putting on one of those special nights?

I don’t, and I just think Belgium will have too much for them. Roberto Martinez’s team is a true ‘Golden Generation’ for Belgian football.

They want to win this title and then have a real go at the World Cup in Qatar in 18 months.

Because if you add the three years to get to Euro 2024 to the ages of Belgium’s top men, Kevin de Bruyne (inset, far left), Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, not to mention all the defenders, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Meunier, then time will soon run out to win a big tournament.

This is Belgium’s chance and time. I say they take another step tonight and end Portugal’s run.

But that man Cristiano Ronaldo is the one who could change everything.

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