Ronaldo and Lukaku will battle it out in Seville
For an individual that is so single-minded, Cristiano Ronaldo uses all manner of motivations to achieve that game-rage. The celebration of his second penalty against France had a lot wrapped up in it.
There was equalling the all-time men’s international goal record, but some of it was much more immediate. Ronaldo pulled clear as the tournament’s top scorer, but more specifically pulled clear of Romelu Lukaku. That is especially important to him, given the Belgian has taken Ronaldo’s crown as the prince of Serie A. Lukaku is now considered the most feared and respected player in the league, to the point there is almost an awe about him around the Italian squad, something that could play into a potential quarter-final meeting between the two nations.
Belgium would have to get past Portugal first, and that will involve getting past a riled Ronaldo. He has a lot to prove for someone that is so celebrated, and he makes sure everyone knows about it.
When Lukaku won the award for Serie A’s best player last season, a point was made of crowning Ronaldo the best forward, with one source saying it was almost as if they were pandering to the Portuguese.
As with many of Ronaldo’s rivalries – not least the most famous against a particular Argentine – there is no actual personal animosity between them. Many people in the game meanwhile say it is almost impossible to not get on with Lukaku.
Personal goodwill isn’t all he shares with Ronaldo, though. There’s also a dwelling on grievances. Lukaku very much remembers slights, and they’re also at the forefront of his mind in big moments. He remembers the criticism he received as a youth, the criticism he received at Manchester United, the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer treated him, and how he’s still commented upon now in England.
Whereas Ronaldo’s motivation feels more contrived and forced in order to get himself into the right mood – a bit like Michael Jordan – Lukaku’s seems more natural, as if it comes from within.
It reflects their different approaches to the same role, which has maybe become the most important in Euro 2020.
The more stuttering evolution of international football compared to the club game means the No 9 has never become more important. Strikers have dominated the tournament so far, so often proving the difference.
All of Lukaku, Ronaldo, Patrik Schick and Karim Benzema have proven vital for their sides.
Elsewhere, it is indicative that Spain’s psychodrama has mostly revolved around Alvaro Morata.
Cristiano Ronaldo is just one goal away from breaking a tie for the all-time leading goalscorer in men’s internationals
England’s lack of goals is connected to the fact their striker isn’t firing, as Harry Kane suffered such frustration, while one connected figure said the absence of such a player is “a killer for Germany”.
It is conspicuous that the sophisticated level of Roberto Mancini’s coaching means Italy are one of the few sides to get around it – along with maybe the Dutch – especially when it is their league that features this duo, who are possibly the two most on form left at Euro 2020.
Beyond that, it feels like a lot of campaigns are dependent on using a main striker in a way they can be decisive.
This is another element elevating this last-16 game. Lukaku and Ronaldo are used so differently.
Whereas it feels like the Belgian is integrated into a wider attack, so his natural game flows with it, Portugal are fitted to Ronaldo. Everything is built around him and towards him, almost demanding the side play in a counter-attacking way. That isn’t necessarily the criticism it sounds like. Ronaldo is perhaps the player who best suits counter-attacking in the history of the game, as that exhilarating goal against Germany illustrated.
That goal did more than anything to undercut the debate that had been growing about Ronaldo, that he restricts the way Portugal play, and dictates one approach. The argument has grown that it is a waste of a generation of gifted midfield players like Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes, since they are almost bypassed in general play.
Lukaku has been sensational this season
That matters much less when Ronaldo scores so often, and you cannot fault his utter relentlessness. It is frankly incredible, machine-like. It does still mirror a similar debate at Juventus.
That is one reason why Lukaku has surpassed Ronaldo as Serie A’s dominant player. He dominates much more of the pitch. Whereas Ronaldo’s impact has been reduced to a narrower area, to the point some at Juventus say he is almost detached from general play “bar penalties and goals”, Lukaku roams everywhere. He is in part so feared because he is so awesome when running at you.
Think of some of his best moments in a red shirt. They are pieces of build-up play, like for Kevin De Bruyne’s goals against Brazil in the World Cup and Denmark in this European Championship.
That points to another split in the tournament, and international football. Teams like Belgium and Italy want to be expansive. Teams like Portugal, France and – increasingly – England plan to be reactive.
This match, maybe more than any other in the tournament, will be a referendum on that. It will thereby revolve around the two centre-forwards, and a rivalry from Serie A.
It is fitting, then, that the potential prize is a quarter-final against Italy.
Both have said they have found Serie A surprisingly difficult to score in. A key could be how this game compares.
That could be what it comes down to, as both Ronaldo and Lukaku work themselves up.
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