SAO PAULO – Day after day, the world watches to see if and when Cristiano Ronaldo ices his troublesome left knee. Day after day, the Portugal camp brushes away suggestions that their superstar won’t be fit come Sunday in Manaus, when they face the US national team (6 pm ET, ESPN/Univision).
And although they might like to claim ignorance, the United States camp isn’t a sensory deprivation chamber.
As easy as it is to offer up cardboard clichés about focusing solely on themselves, they hear the talk. They see the reports, the fevered speculation about a man who can turn a game on its head all on his own.
“Absolutely,” admitted USMNT midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who can look forward to an afternoon of shading the Ballon d’Or winner. “We hear all that stuff, but I think we’re preparing that he’ll be playing.”
Probably a safe bet considering Ronaldo went the full 90 minutes in Portugal’s tournament-opening 4-0 defeat against Germany.
Still, the fact that the 29-year-old wasn’t anywhere close to his swaggering, explosive best against the Germans has to encourage Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff.
The largely quiet performance, at least by Ronaldo’s standards, could be partially down to Pepe's 37th-minute red card, for a head-butt that only helped reputation as a loose cannon. Or perhaps, with Portugal already down two goals at the time anyway, it was an indication that his claim of full fitness was a bluff.
No matter the cause, it doesn’t escape anyone that Sunday’s match against the United States, a must-win for Portugal considering their abysmal goal differential, is another chance for Ronaldo to make the mark that’s eluded him on the sport’s biggest stage.
So while the US gameplan will almost certainly revolve around the Real Madrid superstar, they’re not going to engage in any hero worship either.
“We don’t make a big deal about Cristiano,” midfielder Jermaine Jones said. “I think we are trying to make it our own game and if he plays on the left side, he will play against Fabian. We have trust in Fabian that he can stop him.”
Fabian is, of course, Fabian Johnson, who only recently took on the right back job full time, and will have the unenviable task of slowing down Ronaldo should he get a full head of steam.
Sharing that responsibility will be either Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya – or even both should Klinsmann opt for a five-man midfield. Of course, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler could end up on the business end of a motivated Ronaldo as well, with Portugal likely to flip-flop attacking positions in a bid to create havoc in the US backline.
“He’s athletic, he’s fast, technique,” Johnson said. “He can almost score from everywhere it seems like.”
But nowhere is Ronaldo more effective than on the break, where his sprinter’s speed and incredible change of direction gives him the time and space to apply the cultured finishes that have allowed him to average more than 50 goals per season since joining Real Madrid in 2009.
Portugal have the Ronaldo-led counterattack to thank for their place in Brazil. They qualified only after defeating Sweden 4-2 in a two-legged playoff, three of his four goals scored on the break by the player even Pele calls the world’s best.
“He doesn’t need many touches,” Beckerman said. “It can be a game where he gets maybe 20, 30 touches but has two goals. You got to just be on high alert when he touches the ball because he’s just so dangerous.”
On set pieces, especially, it seems like no distance is too far, no angle too acute.
Even when it everything appears covered, Ronaldo’s vintage manner of striking the ball, one that applies seemingly unnatural knuckles and dips, can leave a ‘keeper flat footed, shaking his head after picking the ball out of the back of the net. Needless to say, the US won’t have that kind of weapon at their disposal.
“I think I read somewhere or saw something that was about he’s emulating a ping-pong shot,” Beckerman said. “He just makes the ball go up and down really fast and the ball kind of does some crazy things. You’d have to ask him how he does it and let me know.”
The issue for Portugal is they may lack the complementary pieces to take advantage of Ronaldo’s brilliance, assuming he’s actually 100 percent as he claimed to be ahead of the World Cup. They’ll be missing both Pepe and left back Fábio Coentrão in Manaus, and the likes of Nani, Hugo Almeida and João Moutinho have shown no signs of being able to inspire in place of Ronaldo.
If you’re the US, with a potential place in the knockout stage on the line with a win, that’s good news indeed, even if you still must somehow, some way slow down a legend in the making to do it.
“The NBA finals showed how it works,” Jones said. “The [San Antonio] Spurs were the better team and that is why they won the championship.”