Cristiano Ronaldo insisted that Euro 2024 is "merely a chapter"

Cristiano Ronaldo must find top finishing form to justify his place in Portugal's starting XI
Cristiano Ronaldo insisted that Euro 2024 is "merely a chapter"

The 39-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo had a few nice touches, but he lacked the finishing bite, timing, and power that made him special in his heyday. Portugal edged past a tenacious Czech Republic thanks to two goals made possible by their opponent's mistakes: an own goal by center-back Robin Hranac and a 92nd-minute strike by 21-year-old centre forward Chico Conceicao, who capitalised on the same defender's blunder. As the camera panned in on a joyful Cristiano Ronaldo hugging Conceicao, one couldn't help but wonder whether the Porto youth may one day come for the keys to the kingdom.

Because on the night versus Czech, the once lethal CR7 appeared to be struggling to acclimate to the game's pace, with mistimed headers, erratic runs that would leave him in an offside position, and shots that would have found the back of the net in his prime, but were saved by the goalkeeper. In one word, he appeared ordinary after this match, with a minor portion of his aura depleted. There were moments of deft touch, particularly in the first half. He rolled back the years with a quick backheel pass to Vitinha.

But he wasn't his usual great self, as fans have come to expect from the star, who was playing his sixth straight Euro since his debut in the championships in 2004, 20 years ago. This longevity, combined with his goal-scoring form, has kept Ronaldo from receiving the same level of criticism that Belgium's Romelu Lukaku has received for his unpredictable finishing skills, the most recent of which came after his misses against Slovakia in a 1-0 defeat. Ronaldo's finish on Tuesday night worried Portugal and their coach, Roberto Martinez, who will have a lot to ponder about after the game.

In a match controlled by Portugal, the team did create enough opportunities for their talisman, which, if he was in peak condition, would all result in goals. However, for a striker who has spent 18 months in the Saudi League, where the quality of play is lower and the margin for error is much broader, Ronaldo will need considerably more than a few international friendlies and qualifiers to find his footing. In the eighth minute, Portugal's brightest spark, Rafael Leao, darted inside from the left and floated a ball to Ronaldo, who was entirely unmarked. The experienced striker, who must have expected Leao to move into the box rather than cross, mistimed his header and sent the ball way beyond of the Czech goalkeeper. In the 32nd minute, Ronaldo, who appeared to be in a tight offside situation, was allowed free into the area by a wonderful threaded pass from ex-Manchester United teammate Bruno Fernandes. With just the goalie to beat, Ronaldo's shot was stopped by the onrushing Jindrich Staneks as another chance passed.

Again, in the first extra minute of the first half, Ronaldo came near with a turn and a low crisp shot that was saved by the goalkeeper.The squandered chances continued in the second half, with Ronaldo rising to meet a cross in the early exchanges but shooting far over the bar. After a few minutes, he had an opportunity with a free kick just 30 yards from the Czech goal, but despite beating the wall, the ball went straight into the goalkeeper's arms. Portugal would maintain their supremacy despite these near misses.

Lukas Provod's goal gave the Czech Republic the lead. However, Portugal's relentless approach compensated for an error by the Czech defenders, which allowed an equalizer. Ronaldo nearly redeemed himself after an anonymous second-half effort by blasting a bullet header into the opposition's bar, with Diogo Jota heading in the rebound. However, VAR intervened and determined that the Al Nassr player was offside, invalidating the goal. Chico, the son of Sergio Conceicao, a player who last played for Portugal in 2003, the same year Ronaldo made his international debut, ultimately made the difference in 2024.

While Martinez may not want to stir up controversy by dropping Ronaldo from the starting lineup, he may begin to substitute the superstar when he needs more attacking alternatives from the bench. On Tuesday, Ronaldo stayed on the pitch until the final whistle despite failing to make an impression while the effervescent Leao was substituted. With Ronaldo's near-godlike status in the sport, the shift may take a few years, but Portugal will have to move beyond their favorite son sooner rather than later. With matches against Turkey and Georgia coming up, both of which played a thrilling end-to-end attacking game on Tuesday, Ronaldo may need to harness his best finishing form to justify his place in this Portugal team, at least as a striker.

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