Form of Ronaldo, Lewandowski and Bale, their nations’ only world-class stars, imperative to Euro 2016 progress

Ahead of the Euro 2016 knockout stages, Ian Hawkey looks at the similarities shared by Poland, Portugal, and Wales; three teams heavily reliant on the performances of their one world class player.
From left to right: Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Julian Finney / Lars Baron / Getty Images
From left to right: Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Julian Finney / Lars Baron / Getty Images

It is not so much superstar status that seems to weigh. Perhaps it’s the captain’s armband. It has a been a mixed tournament so far for Cristiano Ronaldo, serial record-breaker in his club football, holder of most of the landmark records for his country.

It has been a personally challenging two weeks, too, for Robert Lewandowski, leading scorer in the Bundesliga this season, and in the qualifying four Euro 2016. The captain of Poland, who meet Switzerland on Saturday, has yet to open his account in the finals.

It has been a magnificent 14 days, though, for Gareth Bale, leader of the Wales attack, fire-breather in chief for the Dragons, but not their captain. Bale spearheads, his lower-profile colleague Ashley Williams captains.

Portugal, Poland and Wales, each of who seek a place in the quarter-finals on Saturday, arrived at this expanded European championships with a couple of things in common. They were not among the top favourites to win, but they were noted as dangerous outsiders for one reason above all: They had an individual who on his day, can swing a contest against anybody.

They each have a gold-standard, world-class star, and they have just the one. That man plays for a club where he is surrounded, most weeks, by 10 footballers who, man for man, would in an ideal XI displace the 10 teammates with whom he lines up for his country (test out the theory: granted, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate Pepe is also a fellow Portugal player).

More from Euro 2016:

• Diego Forlan column: Euro 2016’s smaller teams, like Croatia and Wales, can emulate Uruguay from World Cup 2010

• Euro 2016’s best quotes from the group stage: “Sometimes you’re the dog, sometimes you’re the tree”

• Euro 2016 Best Group stage XI: Gareth Bale, Dimitri Payet and Toni Kroos among Euro 2016 Team of the Group Stage

• Richard Jolly on Cristiano Ronaldo: Tactless, relentless, antihero and hero, and ever more historic

In the case of Bale and Ronaldo, that club is Madrid, whose search for the best perfect forward line has meant they were in advanced research into how to prise Lewandowski from Bayern Munich for much of last six months.

Bale hopes to carry Wales into the last eight of his country’s first major international tournament for 58 years in Paris, at the expense of Northern Ireland. Thanks in part to Bale’s three goals, one per match so far, they topped Group B and earned themselves what looks a very winnable last-16 tie.

Britons against Britons, Bale up against a defence whose most illustrious performers were engaged last season in West Bromwich Albion’s battle to avoid slipping down a division in English football. Bale meanwhile was on his way to winning his second Uefa Champions League title in his three years as a Madrid player.

The Bale of Wales has distinct persona to the Bale of Madrid. In Spain, where he has taken his time to master a new language, Bale is discreet off the field. In France this month, he has been chatty, mischievous even. No England players would get in the Wales squad, he told reporters. England, the team staffed entirely by men employed in the Premier League, did beat Wales, who include footballers at clubs from the lower tiers, but the 2-1 result in Group B was, in Bale’s words, “a moral victory for the Welsh.”

These are the words of a sabre-rattler, a tub-thumper. Not the taciturn Bale that would be recognised by the media who cover Madrid week in, week out.

But in Madrid, hierarchies are sharply defined, where the most important player is Ronaldo, the Portugal captain, whose sense of well-being has, since he moved to Spain in 2009, been nourished by carrying the tag of the sport’s most expensive player.

The notion that Bale became that when he moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Madrid in 2013 is contested by Ronaldo’s advisers. Ronaldo and Bale may operate effectively as a duo up front for a free-scoring team, but there are unspoken protocols in how they present themselves at their club. Ronaldo likes to be assured his is always the first name on the teamsheet.

Ronaldo has had a frustrating Euro 2016. The record reads: three draws; one missed penalty; a low ratio of goals per attempts at goal, even if he did score twice in the thrilling 3-3 draw against Hungary that pushed Portugal into the knockouts, where they meet Croatia on Saturday evening.

But the frustrations of Ronaldo are not exhibited so much in the statistics, as in the gestures. Barely had the make-or-break fixture against Hungary begun that Ronaldo was spreading his arms, spitting out expletives in exasperation at a slightly misplaced pass by Nani. And Nani, whose goals have earned more points for Portugal than Ronaldo’s so far, is the next most senior attacking player in the side.

Portugal’s lieutenants, in the team with one king, one general, one megastar, are obliged to look up to their captain, to bear his intolerance of their mortal flaws.

Bale’s sergeants admire their kingpin but their awe is not fearful. As Joe Allen, an outstanding performer so far in the Welsh midfield, said: “Every time Gareth steps out onto the pitch in Welsh shirt he does the business and that’s why we’re so proud to have him. You have to mention the shift he puts it. It would be easy for him to rely on the rest of us. But that’s not his approach. The guy’s world class.”

So is Ronaldo, evidently. So is Lewandowski. But, unlike Bale, their pre-eminent class has been seen only in glimpses so far. Their countries may need more than that on Saturday.

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Published: June 24, 2016 04:00 AM

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