Euro 2012: Ronaldo thrives in Bento's Portugal

By Andy BrassellEuropean football expert in Opalenica, Poland

On Saturday morning, after Spain beat France, it was clear which Portugal player would attract most of the Spanish media's attention, as focus switched to Wednesday's semi-final.

"When we look at our neighbouring country," said an article in the Marca newspaper, "there is one footballer above them all. It's enough to see his statistics from this season to know that the main enemy is Cristiano Ronaldo."

The Portugal captain's 65 goals during the 2011-12 regular season included 60 for Real Madrid and five for Portugal. Hence Marca's claim that "Cristiano has already shown this season that when he gets into a good run, he's unstoppable".

His club colleague and Spain captain Iker Casillas even claimed on Monday that despite his blistering form, the currently white-hot Ronaldo was "not at his best level". The message is clear: Spain are seriously concerned he could derail their hopes.

If Portugal's skipper is approaching his club form for his country, his coach must take great credit. Paulo Bento was appointed as a safe pair of hands after the chaos of the Carlos Queiroz era - and has done exactly what was required of him.

Portugal were already struggling under Queiroz's ultra-defensive tactics when he was suspended for insulting a doping official. While he waited for a disciplinary hearing, Portugal stumbled through the start of Euro 2012 qualifying - getting just one point from the opening two games.

Former Sporting Lisbon coach Bento came in and salvaged a dire situation with the minimum of fuss.

The former Sporting Lisbon boss does not have a reputation as a tactical visionary. Instead, he has focused on his players' individual strengths to create a formidable collective.

Experiments in playing Ronaldo as a lone centre-forward have gone out of the window. Under Bento, he has played on the left and cut in, as he does for Real Madrid.

The improvement is indisputable. Since Bento took the job in October 2010, Ronaldo has scored 10 goals in competitive internationals - more than anybody else. As a frame of reference, Germany's Mario Gomez has nine in the same period and Dutch forward Robin van Persie seven.

Even in his slow start to Euro 2012, there were promising signs. His movement in the group match against Denmark was excellent, even if his finishing was strangely erratic. His explosion against Netherlands and the Czech Republic, with three goals in those two games, was just a logical progression.

Ronaldo is not the only beneficiary of Bento's clear thinking. The captain's Madrid team-mate Pepe has been restored to his preferred position of centre-back, having been used as defensive midfielder under Queiroz.

Pepe has looked imperious in Euro 2012, arguably the best defender of the tournament. His comfort in his natural spot is reflected by the fact he has committed only one foul so far, despite his reputation as a very committed player.

The same tactic of using players in their club positions can also be applied to the outstanding Joao Moutinho and Fabio Coentrao. Bento is a player's coach and has created a formidable togetherness in the group.

"He's a coach who understands us very well," said right-back Joao Pereira this week. "Because he was a player too, he knows how to give us some free time to relax our minds."

The mood in the camp has been upbeat. This is partly because a group of players who play in various European leagues are pleased to see familiar faces. Yet it is also because all 23 members are made to feel as if they have an important role.

Ronaldo is at the centre of it all, not just for his fame and skill but because of his bubbly demeanour and his incredible commitment to every training session.

It is unsurprising that Bento is happy to have him as captain, his eyes and ears on the pitch. There has been a connection between the pair since they first crossed paths at Sporting in the early part of the 21st century.

In some ways, they couldn't be more different. Bento is the blue-collar worker, Ronaldo the proud and strutting peacock.

Yet they are both intensely proud of their country and hell-bent on winning. They are both very direct. Bento regularly cuts off journalists he feels are beating around the bush.

They also both know Spain very well. Bento was a player at Real Oviedo for four years in the late '90s. The coach is even gently mocked for his retention of a slight Spanish accent.

While not approaching Ronaldo's superstar status, Bento is fondly remembered for his time in La Liga. The Spanish know he is as indefatigable and determined as his star man.

As reigning world and European champions, Spain have every entitlement to see themselves as favourites. Still they know the power of Ronaldo - and realise that his sometimes-underestimated supporting cast have their own merits too.

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