Portugal talisman Ronaldo has goals in mind against Northern Ireland
Published 16/10/2012 | 08:00
Cristiano Ronaldo. He's the name on everyone's lips in Portugal. His team-mates are talking about him, the Northern Ireland players are talking about him and so are both sets of fans preparing themselves for tonight's World Cup qualifier at Estadio do Dragao.
The venue, in Porto, literally translates to Stadium of the Dragon.
You can bet Real Madrid superhero Ronaldo will be breathing fire tonight and not just because he will become the third Portuguese star — after Luis Figo and Fernando Couto — to win a century of caps.
Ronaldo was fuming that Portugal lost to Russia in Moscow last Friday and is desperate to make up for that against Michael O'Neill's team.
Northern Ireland beware.
Already without three players who would have started in Porto, Gareth McAuley (suspended), Chris Brunt and Shane Ferguson (both injured), O'Neill also has to contend with one of the greatest footballers to play the game entering the fixture even more motivated than usual.
On the back of the 1-0 defeat to Russia, 27-year-old skipper Ronaldo is demanding “a convincing victory” against Northern Ireland.
For long periods in Moscow after conceding a goal early on Portugal dominated, but they departed with nothing to show for their efforts leaving them in second spot three points behind Fabio Capello's team who, with three wins from three, top the Group F table.
Remember that position guarantees qualification for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. Runners-up spot, currently occupied by Portugal, only ensures a play-off.
With Russia expected to beat Azerbaijan this afternoon, a fired up Ronaldo, seen as the leader of the team on and off the pitch, does not want to fall further behind.
The former Manchester United star said: “The defeat that we suffered against Russia was unjust — it was a game that we should have won, but we must put that behind us and we are now concentrating on Northern Ireland.
“We still have our World Cup destiny in our hands and what is important now is that we give our best in front of our supporters in Porto and make sure that we achieve a convincing victory.”
Porto midfielder João Moutinho, who almost signed for Spurs in the transfer window, is expecting big things from his captain on what promises to be a special night.
Moutinho said: “For Cristiano it is an important game — his 100th cap for the national side and obviously an important milestone in his career as captain of Portugal. He will be wanting to make it a memorable match and give a five star performance.”
The question is can Northern Ireland stop the Bernabeu wizard?
O'Neill will hope that experienced players like Aaron Hughes will have the answer.
Fulham defender Hughes faced Ronaldo on several occasions in England before the latter moved to Spain.
“Maybe he has gone to another level since his days in the Premier League and I don't think he has peaked yet,” admits Hughes.
“He switched from United to Madrid and has become just as successful.
"Perhaps La Liga is not as strong as the Premier League but over there he is scoring two hat-tricks every three weeks which isn't easy! Lionel Messi and Ronaldo are the two players in world football who stand out, so to be in the bracket is amazing.
“He's more than worthy of winning 100 caps, but whether it is his 100th or 10th what makes players great is that they play well all the time and rarely have an off night.
“It's not just technical ability, it is the attitude to reproduce every single night.
“People like basketball great Michael Jordan had that and so does Ronaldo.”
While Hughes played against Ronaldo, Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll played with him at Old Trafford.
“I was with him at United for two years and he couldn't speak English when he arrived, but neither could I,” joked the Fermanagh man, who is becoming a cult favourite in Greece with his latest club, Olympiakos.
“He was very hard working and I must say I learned from him with the shots he used to fire against me in training. He can hit a ball.
“Since then he has developed himself as an all-round player.
“He is physically so much harder having worked a lot in the gym and looked after himself on and off the pitch. He's a much stronger player now and obviously is their main dangerman.”
You are not kidding, Roy. Everyone is expecting you to be busy tonight and unless Northern Ireland can tame Ronaldo, it is going to be a very long one for the visitors.