Portugal have rallied around captain Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of Thursday’s first Euro 2012 quarter-final against the Czech Republic in Warsaw.
It will be the third meeting between the two sides in the last five championships, with each side having won one apiece — the most important belonging to the Czechs in the 1996 quarter-finals on their way to losing to Germany in the final.
Paulo Bento’s Portugal have got where they are thanks to their team ethic and after seeing Ronaldo finally click into gear in Sunday’s game against the hapless Dutch to score both goals in the 2-1 win.
They have been accused of creating a cult of personality around their 27-year-old captain but the team have circled the wagons in the face of what they see as unjustified criticism.
“The important thing is that Ronaldo is one of the most professional players I have ever come across,” said midfielder Raul Meireles.
“He gives his all at every training session.
“He is our leader and, on the pitch, there is no one who wants to win more than him.
“He scored twice in the last match; before he had drawn a blank but he had still helped us out in other ways.”
The Czech’s outstanding goalkeeper, Petr Cech, acknowledges the Portuguese are favourites for this match and says the team is made up of more than just Ronaldo.
“They are among the world’s top 10 teams. It’s a team full of personalities and outstanding players and they play very well. Against the Netherlands on Sunday, they were excellent up front,” said the Chelsea number one.
“They also have enough experienced players. The team has matured and it’s really strong.”
Although they are not amongst the overall favourites here, Cech’s club-mate Meireles believes Portugal can emulate Chelsea and shock Europe.
“Chelsea won the Champions League when nobody considered them as favourites,” he said referring to their penalty shootout win over Bayern Munich in May.
“When we began this tournament, nobody mentioned Portugal as one of the favourites.
“If we manage to do the same (as Chelsea) it will the realisation of a dream.”
They received a boost in their preparations for this match as Real Madrid centre-back Pepe resumed training on Tuesday after sitting it out on Monday with sore ankles.
The news is not so good for the Czechs, though, with captain Tomas Rosicky set to miss out as he struggles to recover from an inflamed Achilles tendon.
“Will he be able to play from the start? I don’t think so,” said Czech team manager Vladimir Smicer.
“He hasn’t trained for eight days, only doing some work on a bike.”
Rosicky had been receiving treatment in Prague since Sunday but is now back with the squad in Warsaw.
But the Czechs are no strangers to difficulties, not least in this competition which they began by being mauled 4-1 by Russia.
And much-maligned coach Michal Bilek believes the tough times they have endured together has made them stronger.
“In those two-and-a-half years, we have always managed to overcome the critical moments — and there have been quite a few,” said the 47-year-old.
Portugal, finalists in 2004 when Ronaldo was the baby of the team, have also showed spirit, having started like the Czechs with a defeat — 1-0 to Germany.
But the cautious Bento, who like Bilek has had his fair share of criticism, dismissed the notion his side are favourites to reach the last four.
“We don’t claim to be favourites (against the Czechs) and it won’t be easy. We have to keep up our work and the quality that we have shown so far. Then maybe we can even reach the semi-finals.” -AFP