Ronaldo stakes claim as world's best

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It was supposed to be one of his biggest flaws.

Cristiano Ronaldo, the critics argued, didn't show up in the big games. Pundits of otherwise sound judgement suggested that he didn't have the bottle, or that maybe, whisper it quietly, that he wasn't actually that good. 99 La Liga goals in 82 appearances suggests otherwise, and while he's found it difficult to escape the long shadow cast by the diminutive Argentinian across the Spanish plains, Ronaldo may finally now have answered his critics.

His two goals against Holland was a welcome response to those who questioned his ability after a lackluster performance against Denmark, and another dominating showing in the quarter-finals against Czech Republic, capped by a thumping header, saw Ronaldo drag his country into the semi-finals.

It hasn't been an easy ride. Danish fans taunted Ronaldo will chants of 'Lionel Messi, Lionel Messi' from the stands as the Portugal forward skewed chance after chance past the post in their first group match. An angry repost from Ronaldo hinted at a troubled and tetchy character, but he has responded in the best way possible - with goals, and with victories.

And he now stands on the cusp of greatness, for a Euro 2012 triumph would surely be his greatest personal achievement so far. Ronaldo has never been shy to celebrate personal glory, and in terms of self-publicity, he beats Lionel Messi hands down.

But, at Euro 2012 Ronaldo has found himself surrounded by a second-rate cast of talented, but limited, Portuguese players, and yet still he has flourished. Were he to lead them to continental triumph, the victory would be a personal one as much as a team.

The Madrid ace carries this Portugal side. Under Jose Mourinho he fired off the most shots on goal in all of Europe's top five leagues, and at Euro 2012 he again comfortably leads the way with 22 efforts. Even in the first two group games, when he was visibly frustrated and unusually subdued, he still carried a latent goal threat far outwaying the contributions of his attacking teammates.

Since then, that threat has been translated into reality. Nani, Joao Moutinho and Pepe are capable of brilliance, but equally each is capable of frustrating. And this is the best Ronaldo has to work with, not that he's complaining.

"The team is mature and we are ready for the next game," said Ronaldo. "The last game [versus Holland] I hit the post twice and again today but it was important that I scored and the team played very good and everyone is happy. Big smiles all round."

Compared to the supporting cast at the disposal of the world's current best player, Leo Messi, Ronaldo has been dealt a poor hand. Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Pastore, and Javier Mascherano are all world-class players in their own right. In the popularity stakes, Messi probably beats Ronaldo, and on the pitch he's largely outshined his Portuguese rival as well.

Apart from his outrageous talent, part of Messi's charm lies in his modesty, and his infectious enthusiasm for the game. He is not one for temper tantrums, or petulant kicks, and you get the sense that he genuinely enjoys every moment of football he plays. This manifests itself in Messi's humble personality, and his respect for his club is rare in today's age.

"I do not know what Barcelona saw in me, but I will always be grateful to them for what they did and what they keep doing," said Messi. "At that time [as a youngster], I was on a very expensive medical treatment and they covered all the costs and gave me the opportunity to play.

"This was something very beautiful, because they allowed me to realise my dream."

No one doubts Ronaldo and Messi's ability as individuals, the difference is their effect upon their teammates, their ability to get the very best out of those around them. So far, both players have struggled on the international stage, away from the comforts of the club scene, and where the weight of national expectation weighs slightly heavier.

At club level games come around with such regularity that one poor game can be quickly forgotten with a hat-trick in the next three days later. At international level, the fixtures are sparse and the opportunities are limited. Heroes are made in the space of two weeks, rather than across a whole season.

At domestic level, you can score 70 goals and still not win the league. At international level, six goals is probably enough to give your team an excellent chance of winning the tournament. It's about taking those few opportunities and seizing them. At World Cups and Copa Americas, Messi hasn't quite replicated his Barcelona form, but a couple of recent hat-tricks for Argentina suggest the 2014 World Cup could be his tournament.

At World Cups and European Championships, Ronaldo had suffered a similar problem, but against the Czech Republic, Ronaldo did just that - he replicated his Madrid form. In the space of two games, and three goals, Ronaldo has gone from being a big game choker to a clutch performer.

The debate over the merits of Messi and Ronaldo will remain as polarised as ever, but Ronaldo's performances so far have given ample ammunition to his supporters.

If Portugal go on and win the competition, Ronaldo's claim to be the world's best player will be hard to ignore.

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Cristiano Ronaldo

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