Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal place under pressure ahead of World Cup

Portugal’s Cristiano conundrum: Calls are growing for talisman Ronaldo to be DROPPED ahead of the World Cup after lacklustre display against Spain with coach Fernando Santos accused of favouritism and his Man United game time dwindling

  • Cristiano Ronaldo put in a poor performance as Portugal were beaten by Spain
  • 37-year-old looked a yard off the pace and squandered several good chances
  • More and more fans and pundits in Portugal are questioning why he starts
  • One TV pundit suggested Ronaldo dictates terms to coach Fernando Santos
  • A prominent newspaper suggested Ronaldo is blocking progress of the team
  • But Man United star says he wants to continue until at least Euro 2024 
  • Click here for all the latest World Cup 2022 news and updates

It’s been a bruising week for Cristiano Ronaldo and not just because of the nasty black eye he suffered following his collision with Czech Republic goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.

Just a few weeks out from the World Cup, Portugal’s biggest star is coming in for more and more criticism over his below-par performances, with many openly asking the question as to whether the team is better off without him.

In Portugal, it’s no longer taboo to suggest this talismanic figure, one of the greatest footballers ever to take to the pitch, should step aside and let others have their moment.

Cristiano Ronaldo rues one of his wasted chances as Portugal were beaten 1-0 by Spain

The 37-year-old was heavily criticised again after Portugal blew a Nations League finals place

He was sporting a nasty-looking black eye after a collision with Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik

Ronaldo was left bloodied and bruised from clash in the 13th minute of the Nations League tie

The prominent sports daily A Bola ran a front page on Monday that read ‘Less Ronaldo, more Portugal’, arguing that his lack of regular game time at Manchester United this season invalidated his automatic right to a national team place.

Nonetheless, Fernando Santos still started the 37-year-old in Tuesday night’s crucial Nations League fixture against Spain. Portugal lost 1-0 having needed only a point to make the finals and the criticism continued.

Ronaldo’s performance in Braga could be described as not quite being in sync. 

The inevitable YouTube compilations of his every touch showed passes going astray or just a frustrating fraction behind their intended target, of shots blazed high over the bar and of movement a split-second too slow.

It led to accusations of favouritism on Portuguese TV, with RTP3 pundit Tiago Fernandes saying: ‘Anyone can see that it’s Ronaldo who decides how many minutes he plays – you don’t have to be smart to see that.’

That comment sparked a heated discussion over whether Santos, whose eight years in charge of Portugal has coincided with Ronaldo’s peak, was too in thrall to the superstar.

Maybe Fernandes has a point. Ronaldo does start the vast majority of Portugal’s games, as he has for about 15 years.

He leads the attack and is the captain, although he did throw away the armband in a fit of pique after Alvaro Morata’s late winner on Tuesday night. It’s not the first time he’s done that either.

But when Ronaldo wants to sit a game out, he tends to be granted his wish. That happened back in June when Portugal played away to Switzerland in the Nations League. In his absence, they lost 1-0.

And generally, despite his advancing years, Ronaldo does deliver the goods. Perhaps not as prolifically as three or four years ago but he does still offer goals and assists.

Ronaldo chucked away the captain’s armband after Tuesday night’s defeat in Braga

The leading Portuguese sports daily A Bola called for ‘Less Ronaldo, more Portugal this week’

In the other game against Switzerland in June, for example, he scored twice and created another in a 4-0 rout. At last summer’s Euros, he scored five goals in the group stage.

It could also be argued that when you have played 191 games for your country – and have scored 117 goals – you are entitled to have a say in which games you sit out.

Ronaldo could have stepped back from the national team at any point after Portugal won Euro 2016. At times during that tournament, it looked like he was single-handedly dragging them to glory.

But he keeps turning up, motivated no doubt by duty but also by the chance to break more records.

He is already the leading all-time goalscorer in international football and is closing in on the record for most international appearances.

Ronaldo inspired Portugal to glory in the 2016 European Championship in France

Portugal coach Fernando Santos, in the job since 2014, has been accused of favouritism 

That is a contentious area, mind you. FIFA recognises Bader Al-Mutawa of Kuwait as the record-holder on 196 games, meaning Ronaldo should surpass him in the coming months.

But the Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation (RSSSF) say that Malaysia’s Soh Chin Ann is in the lead with 219 caps, but these include games at the Olympics, which aren’t recognised by FIFA.

It’s possible Ronaldo will keep playing long enough to settle this argument beyond all doubt. He said last week he intends to be at Euro 2024, aged 39, and given Santos has a contract until that tournament, he will probably continue to be picked.

Asked about Ronaldo’s lacklustre performance against Spain, Santos replied: ‘What interests me is how the team played. Ronaldo had three or four chances. Two very good ones, which he usually scores. He didn’t score, it’s football.’

They didn’t sound like the words of a man about to drop his biggest name but if Santos truly values the team as a collective he should at least consider it.

Ronaldo has become accustomed to warming the bench for Manchester United this season

Eventually, Portugal will have to look to the future and give more starting opportunities to the likes of Andre Silva, or maybe use Rafael Leao or Diogo Jota in Ronaldo’s position rather than out wide.

It would be the ideal moment to make the transition because Santos has the smokescreen of Erik ten Hag’s decision to bench Ronaldo at United.

Ronaldo has started only one of United’s six Premier League matches so far this season and is having to make do with cameos off the bench late in games and outings in the UEFA Europa League.

The man who was far and away United’s top goalscorer with 24 last season is now having to scrounge around for penalties against Sheriff Tiraspol.

Erik ten Hag has started Ronaldo in only one Premier League game so far this season

Ronaldo’s only goal of the season so far came from the penalty spot against Sheriff Tiraspol 

Having failed to secure his desired move away from Old Trafford in the summer, this looks set to be Ronaldo’s fate until the World Cup starts.

Marcus Rashford and United’s other forwards are in much better form and more attuned to the way Ten Hag wishes to play.

It’s open to debate how much of Ronaldo’s rustiness against Spain is down to a lack of game time and how much comes down to the simple fact he’s now 37.

But Santos, by starting Ronaldo in both matches this week, has now missed his opportunity to get an alternative plan in place before the World Cup.

You’d certainly put good money on Ronaldo leading the line for his country when they take on Ghana at the Stadium 974 in Doha on November 24.

There will come a time when Portugal must confront life without him. Many now believe that day has already come… but not those who will make the decisions.

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