Ronaldo delivers on the big stage again
By Simon Evans
LYON, France (Reuters) - Love him loathe him, there is no denying Cristiano Ronaldo delivers when it matters most.
Just over five weeks after he struck the decisive penalty shoot-out kick to win the Champions League final for Real Madrid against city rivals Atletico, Ronaldo scored one goal and created another to send Portugal into the Euro 2016 final with a 2-0 victory over Wales.
The game had been billed as the "Battle of the Galacticos" with Ronaldo up against his Welsh Real Madrid team mate Gareth Bale.
The close focus on the pair was not only because Real had spent more to bring Bale from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013 than they had to sign Ronaldo from Manchester United four years earlier and not just due to the constant speculation that the two are not exactly close friends.
Both Ronaldo and Bale are more than just key players for their national sides - they are the fulcrum of everything they try to do in their attacking play, the source for goal-scoring and goal-creation. Without them, and neither team would have probably reached the last four of this competition.
The unified, and entirely predictable, message from both camps before the game was that the encounter in the Stade de Lyon would be about "eleven v eleven" and not "Ronaldo v Bale".
But that did not stop the world’s focus being on the two players and which one would shine the most.
The answer, after 90 minutes, was pretty clear.
Ronaldo scored his country’s opening goal in the 50th minute with a superb header and three minutes later it was his low shot which was turned in by Nani to make it 2-0 and leave Wales with too much to do.
Bale had done more work, had more shots on target and been more of a threat in the opening half - he fired over the bar after a smartly-worked corner and got to the byline where his dangerous, low cross was not far away from Andy King, sliding in at the near post.
The best moment from Bale came when, wide inside his own half, he lured Danilo into an ill-advised challenge, floated past him and then sprinted deep into Portuguese territory before unleashing a low drive that was, however, too close to keeper Rui Patricio.
But it was Ronaldo who delivered the killer blows.
After the two goals, Bale began to drift deeper, searching for the ball from his defenders as he tried to be the playmaker as well as the attacking threat.
Without the sorely missed suspended midfielder Aaron Ramsey’s creative touch and incisive running, which King could not replicate, Bale really had too much to produce.
While he never stopped trying to deliver it, he was reduced to speculative long-range efforts in the latter stages which barely troubled Patricio.
Ronaldo, in contrast, played in front of a well-organised Portuguese midfield and was free to roam the front-line with his partner Nani another threat to keep the Welsh defence alert.
And that was, ultimately, what allowed Ronaldo to do what he does best - be a danger in and around the penalty area.
Now the inevitable Ronaldo narrative will turn to the man who he is so often compared with - Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona striker, like Ronaldo, has famously failed to win a trophy with his country, his latest failure coming last month in the Copa America.
Expect it to be denied, but make no mistake, Ronaldo would love nothing more than to get one up on Messi.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)