With Silva, Portugal no more just the Ronaldo show

PORTO • Cristiano Ronaldo has ended his international exile to spearhead Portugal’s hopes of winning the inaugural Nations League at home this weekend, but gone are the days when he was the European champions’ only man to fear.

Having won league titles in England, Spain and Italy, the five-time Champions League winner has little left to prove.

Ronaldo, having shed tears as a teenager when Portugal, as hosts, lost 1-0 to Greece in the Euro 2004 final, can finally lift a trophy in front of an adoring home crowd to add to their Euro 2016 title.

Ahead of today’s Nations League semi-final against Switzerland, defender Pepe declared that he was delighted to have his former Real Madrid teammate back because he is “the best player in the world” and is a “scoring machine”.

Ronaldo took a break from international duty after last June’s World Cup and returned only for the opening two Euro 2020 qualifiers in March.

Without their all-time record scorer (85), they still made it to the Nations League final four, with the Netherlands playing England in the other tie tomorrow.

In his absence, Bernardo Silva has come to the fore.

The midfielder, praised by his Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola as the most outstanding player in the Premier League as his team retained their English title, has also emerged as the principal creative force for his country.

He could be joined at the Etihad Stadium by compatriot Joao Felix, whose €120 million (S$184.6 million) buyout clause has not deterred a host of top European suitors, including City. He could become the most-expensive Portuguese player, even ahead of Ronaldo, who moved to Juventus for €100 million last year.

The forward is in line for his international debut today after a stellar season with Benfica, scoring 20 goals in all competitions to help his team become Portuguese champions for a record 37th time.

But the 19-year-old feels he still has “a lot” of room for improvement despite being seen as the 34-year-old Ronaldo’s heir apparent.

Admitting to being star-struck on his first few days of training, Felix told Benfica’s website: “It was weird, I had never seen him live, so close. I said to my colleagues and best friends later he looked like a video game character.”

While opponents Switzerland do not possess the same star power, Xherdan Shaqiri will arrive in Porto as a newly crowned European champion with Liverpool.

Vladimir Petkovic’s men, though, have shown their ability to spring a surprise in their run to the last four, beating top-ranked Belgium 5-2 in their final group game last November.


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