Ronaldo versus Lewandowski: Clash of titans

The two superstars are yet to set the competition on fire, and the knockout game, with a last-four spot there for the taking, is an ideal scenario for the two to break their shackles.

The twin strike against Hungary in the last group game has helped Ronaldo soothe his nerves and the striker is expected to play much freely against Poland in the quarterfinals.   -  REUTERS

The quarterfinal match against Portugal will be a big occasion for Poland's Robert Lewandowski. Can he rise up to the occasion?   -  REUTERS

A battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski is on the cards, as Portugal takes on Poland in a EURO 2016 quarterfinal clash. The two superstars are yet to set the competition on fire, and the knockout game, with a last-four spot there for the taking, is an ideal scenario for the two to break their shackles.

I expect both the managers, Fernando Santos of Portugal and Adam Nawalka of Poland, to stick to their safety-first approach, opting for a 4-4-2 system. Portugal, despite the attacking firepower of Ronaldo and Nani, sat deep against Croatia. The two forwards were almost always in their own half, keeping a check on the diminutive Luka Modric. Santos had crowded his midfield, allowing little space to the ball-playing Croats. It was a hard-earned victory, playing functional football.

 

Portugal will look to do the same and try finding its skipper with long balls in the box. Ronaldo, a shot monster, had 30 shots during the group stage, 13 more than his Real Madrid team-mate Gareth Bale in second place. His total was better than teams like Albania (29), Czech Republic (26), Slovakia (26), Turkey (26), Italy (25), Iceland (23), Sweden (23) and Northern Ireland (17). Given the numbers, Ronaldo was destined to find the back of the net some time in the competition. The twin strike against Hungary, in the last group game, has helped Ronaldo soothe his nerves and the striker is expected to play much freely in the last-eight match.

With Joao Moutinho failing to exert his usual influence in the middle of the field, Ronaldo at times has been starved of balls and there are talks of him playing further wide. But Santos will do well to keep his talisman upfront, banking on his ability to find goals out of nowhere. Ronaldo makes for an imposing figure in the box, his aerial ability adding to his bullet-like shots.

Poland, too, will look to hit its opponent on the counter, with the fullbacks peppering the box with crosses from wide. Despite the presence of Pepe, the Portuguese back four are not the most settled of the lot and have been susceptible while dealing with long balls. Milik and Lewandowski, however, are yet to shine. The Ajax forward has been particularly guilty of wasting too many chances, often failing to latch on to the knockdowns from his skipper.

A cagey affair might well be on the cards with teams, bogged down by the pressures of a knockout game, failing to come charging off the blocks. An early goal, however, can change the complexion of the game. When forced to chase a result, both teams have the arsenal to play with an attacking intent, thereby opening up the possibility of a goal-fest.

Going back to the last set of pre-quarterfinals, the Italian master-class against Spain, for me, is one of the best displays of tactical football in recent times. Antonio Conte, managing a team without any big stars, forged a squad that did everything right to completely nullify tiki-taka football. Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli, with Thiago Motta sitting ahead of them, did a marvellous job of denying the Spanish wizards the space between and behind defence. Motta’s suspension and the injury to the other defensive midfielder, Daniele de Rossi, will be a cause of concern for Conte ahead of the last-eight clash against Germany.

The Italians, while going forward, utilised the width to their advantage, with long balls from the back finding the likes of Giaccherini and Florenzi. The rapid transition was too much for Spain — which is used to teams sitting far too deep against it — to handle.

Vicente del Bosque’s team, very much like England, was guilty of not showing the drive and intent to go for the kill. The current Spanish side is woefully short of players who can dribble past opponents. Andres Iniesta is the only exception, but the Barcelona player is not getting any younger. The team gets stuck in its slow, horizontal passing game, failing to translate the possession into actual goal-scoring opportunities.

Like Barcelona did under Luis Enrique with the introduction of Neymar and Luis Suarez, Spain needs to find pace and players with the ability to run at and past defenders to reinvent its game.