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It has been a curious tournament for Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portugal forward was either quiet or wasteful in his first two games and seemed to be wearing a permanent frown before the smiles returned in a pair of match-winning performances. With Spain next up in tomorrow's semi-final, he will be confident of making another decisive contribution.
"I have felt good – the truth is I always have," explained Portugal's captain, whose displays against Germany and Denmark were quickly forgotten as he struck both goals in the 2-1 Group B defeat of the Netherlands and found the net in the 1-0 quarter-final win against the Czech Republic.
"The truth is that with a lot of sacrifice from the team, from our players, we started to play better, and I also started to play better.
We lost our first match and then won all the others. I think that shows the great mental capacity of this team, and it didn't surprise me because I knew the goals would come. Luckily they have, and I have been able to help the team."
A Ronaldo strike at the Donbass Arena on Wednesday night would be his first in four appearances against the world and European champions, and with a place in the UEFA EURO 2012 final up for grabs there could hardly be a better time to open his account. The sense of occasion will nonetheless be tremendous and, for the man wearing the armband for the Selecção das Quinas, the pressure will be intense – or perhaps not.
"Over the years, you get better at dealing with certain situations," said Ronaldo, currently joint top in the adidas Golden Boot race with Mario Gomez, Mario Mandžukić and Alan Dzagoev. "Sincerely, up until now, I'm not feeling the pressure of playing against Spain or any other team because this is part of my life. I've already been doing this for more than ten years and so I must have become accustomed to it already. I will always have responsibility, but pressure? Not much."
The 27-year-old will also feel reassuringly familiar with many of his opponents after three years at Real Madrid CF, for whom he struck an incredible 46 Liga goals in 2011/12. His composure could also be aided by memories of beating Spain at UEFA EURO 2004, when a 1-0 group stage win for the hosts ended their Iberian neighbours' campaign – La Roja's last defeat in a UEFA European Championship final tournament, in fact.
"I remember that we played very well and Nuno Gomes got the goal, I think," said Ronaldo. "These are always competitive matches and always balanced, because the Spain team always has great players and always has had. I expect it to be the same this year. These are matches which are decided on small details, and I hope Portugal will be stronger in that sense."
A repeat of that result in Lisbon would send Paulo Bento's side through to Sunday's decider in Kyiv, while evening their record in last-four contests after semi-final losses in 1984 and 2000. For Ronaldo, meanwhile, it would be evidence of progress made since the heartbreak of their showpiece loss to Greece on home soil in 2004. "It has a beautiful significance because if Portugal get the chance to play another final eight years on, it's a sign that we've been evolving in recent years, and that's what I believe," he said. "We know the next match will be difficult, but we are one step away from a great final."
Much of the credit for that must go to Bento as well, and Ronaldo praised his former Sporting Clube de Portugal team-mate for lifting the team after being appointed to salvage their qualifying campaign. "He's been doing a great job, not only now at the finals but also during qualification. I think he's done a phenomenal job. From the moment he took on the national team, he has believed in the players and he's getting results now in the final stage. He knows the players more and more, and knows Portugal have a good team." So too, after Wednesday, could the whole of Spain.
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