Portugal scraped past Slovenia by the skin of their teeth to reach the Euro 2024 quarter-finals. Cristiano Ronaldo endured a difficult game, bringing his place in the team under the spotlight once again.

Cristiano Ronaldo let out an exaggerated laugh. Referee Daniele Orsato had just spotted his sneaky attempt to nudge a free-kick a few yards towards goal, with the Italian official forcibly moving it back himself. The Portugal great’s reaction was as if trying to convince everyone –himself included – that he was completely relaxed and at ease. All the evidence in Monday’s last-16 match, before and after that moment, suggested otherwise.

Portugal needed a penalty shootout to get past Slovenia and reach the Euro 2024 quarter-finals after 120 goalless minutes at the Waldstadion. And while Diogo Costa’s remarkable heroics in said shootout would be the main talking point on any other day, Ronaldo is all anyone’s been able to speak about.

A once-great player, Ronaldo’s decline was laid bare as he snatched at one chance he’d have probably buried not so long ago, couldn’t quite reach the crosses that were floated towards him, flapped and floundered as younger players knocked into him, and just generally seemed to be detrimental to Portugal’s attacking productivity.

The thing is, that’s fine, understandable even; he’s 39 years old, and had he singlehandedly won a European Championship last-16 tie at this point of his career, he’d be verging on supernatural. The issue, however, is he continues to be indulged and treated as if he’s the most talented player in the squad. For a long, long time he was, but no more.

His desperation to score on Monday was clear. While Ronaldo’s always been passionate on the pitch, susceptible to more than the odd instance of throwing his arms up in the air in annoyance, this felt like a new level of determination and subsequent frustration.

Cristiano Ronaldo xG Euro 2024

The anger when he couldn’t quite get his head on a first-half cross was palpable, and as that fury grew throughout the match despite his colleagues’ devotion to creating anything for him, you got the feeling that if Ronaldo wasn’t going to score, no one would.

He ended the game having taken his shot tally for the tournament to 20 and boosting his expected goals (xG) to 2.8, yet he remains goalless.

Going back as far as 1966, only 11 players have ever tallied more shots in a World Cup/Euros without scoring – though, interestingly, Lionel Messi (29 shots, 0 goals at 2010 World Cup) holds the dubious honour of being out in front there.

In terms of attempts, Ronaldo’s not only registered more than any other player at Euro 2024, he’s even outshot another team, with Scotland managing only 17 collectively (albeit from one game fewer).

Eight of Ronaldo’s 20 shots were taken against Slovenia, with half coming via free-kicks; no player has taken more than four shots from free-kicks in a single Euros or World Cup game since Gheorghe Hagi vs Sweden at the 1994 World Cup (five).

Furthermore, it left Ronaldo with a record of one goal from 60 free-kick shots at major tournaments – that’s a conversion rate of 1.7%.

Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick locations
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

The last time on record that Ronaldo had more than three shots in a game at international or club level and over half of them were free-kicks was February 2013 for Real Madrid vs Barcelona.

In fairness to him, Ronaldo’s first free-kick effort on Monday went agonisingly over, even if Jan Oblak had it covered, and another forced the Slovenia goalkeeper into a necessary block.

But another went comfortably over, and the effort that followed referee Orsato moving the ball back flew high and wide from a ludicrous position out on the left flank. Okay, he has scored from similar situations before, but we’re talking once for Manchester United in February 2009, and then for Real Madrid against APOEL Nicosia in April 2012. So, 12 and 15 years ago, in his pomp.

In a way, that particular effort summed up his night. This iteration of Ronaldo having cart blanche to do whatever he wants and be the focus of everything just isn’t logical if we’re to consider Portugal serious contenders to win Euro 2024.

The irony of that free-kick example was Portugal had been trying to lump balls into the box for Ronaldo to get on the end of, and this dead-ball situation was arguably a better opportunity than any instance in open play of doing just that with Bruno Fernandes or Bernardo Silva over the ball.

But Ronaldo seemingly felt he had a better chance of scoring from 35 yards out on the wide left, and so he took the kick and ballooned it high and wide.

Cristiano Ronaldo free-kicks
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

It should be added, this isn’t an attempt to retcon his free-kick abilities, because you have to acknowledge that for a time – towards the end of his Manchester United days and for a while at Real Madrid – there were few who scored more from dead-ball situations than him.

But again, he isn’t the player he was and the graphic above demonstrates that he may not be the best man for the role of free-kicks anymore.

When you’ve been as incredible on the pitch as he has over the years, though, it’s easy to understand why ‘hero ball’ might resonate.

Look at what he’s achieved and how often he has been the hero in games throughout his career; you get it, and it cannot be easy to let go of as you come to the realisation you’re not what you were, confronting the pure essence of your own mortality.

But that’s what happens in football and it’s normal. Ronaldo is human and the fact is he’s past his prime.

Ronaldo’s personal crusade for more records surely wasn’t playing on his mind. Of course, he’s always been all over free-kicks and never been afraid to throw his arms up when things aren’t going his way. And while this is purely a feeling rather than a fact, he seemed more riled up than ever – after all, we can’t remember him ever missing a penalty and crying about it before the match is even over.

That’s not us poking fun, by the way. He had every right to be disappointed at half-time in extra-time, shortly after his penalty had been saved by Oblak, but there’d be alarm bells if anyone else had reacted in such a way.

Jan Oblak xGOT Euro 2024

Had he converted it, Ronaldo would’ve become the oldest goalscorer in Euros history and the only player to have netted in six Euros tournaments. Maybe none of that came into his thinking at all, perhaps it was just about “making people happy” rather than his legacy, as he quite rightly said after the game: “It’s not about me leaving the world of football. What else is there for me to do or win?”

The problem is, Ronaldo has to be the centre of Portugal’s universe when he’s playing. Everything has to revolve around him, with the team set up predominantly to create chances for him. As such, Portugal make up three of the top six for most open-play crosses in a single match at Euro 2024.

Portugal crosses vs Slovenia
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Admittedly the game went to extra-time, but their 31 open-play crosses vs Slovenia was second only to Czech Republic’s 37 against Georgia. Considering the ability the squad otherwise has, it’s fair to suggest they could be more subtle if they weren’t intent on laying everything on a plate for Ronaldo.

Furthermore, Vanja Drkusic handled Ronaldo pretty well, and with all due respect to the Sochi defender, it’s not like he’s a household name or a vastly experienced stalwart used to pitting his wits against players of such calibre in international tournaments every two years.

The admittedly far more experienced Guram Kashia was similarly effective for Georgia in their shock 2-0 win over Portugal on Matchday 3, with Ronaldo one of just three players to not be rested during that match.

Portugal lineup vs Georgia

That in itself is one element of coach Roberto Martínez’s arguably questionable handling of the situation. If you’re intent on continuing to play a 39-year-old Ronaldo in your starting XI, surely you take the opportunity to rest him on Matchday 3 when you’ve already won the group? Gonçalo Ramos was eventually turned to in the 66th minute when Portugal were already 2-0 down.

Martínez said it was wiser to keep Ronaldo in the team to help maintain the player’s “competitive rhythm” rather than let him go six days without a game. On the one hand it makes sense, but it must feel like a bit of a kick in the teeth for Ramos to not even get a start in a game that didn’t really matter. Those 24 minutes against Georgia remain the Paris Saint-Germain striker’s only action at Euro 2024.

Before the tournament, the point was made that none of Ronaldo’s positional rivals in the squad have really enjoyed the sort of form that would make them indispensable, and that includes Ramos, while the Real Madrid great scored 10 in qualifying.

However, six of those 10 goals came against the likes of Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Iceland, while Ramos’ record of a Ligue 1 goal every 129 minutes in 2023-24 wasn’t bad. And let’s not forget, Ronaldo was dropped for Ramos at the 2022 World Cup and that went pretty well.

Portugal v Switzerland xG race

The young forward netted an excellent hat-trick as Portugal hammered Switzerland 6-1, producing comfortably their best performance at a major tournament for a long time. Fernando Santos was bold enough to make such a call, but is Martínez?

There’s little evidence to suggest Ronaldo – who hasn’t scored a non-penalty goal in his last 11 World Cup/Euros appearances – won’t start against France in the quarter-finals, meaning everything will continue to be all about him. If the Slovenia match is anything to go by, such a refusal to move on is very risky.

Enjoy this? Subscribe to our football newsletter to receive exclusive weekly content. You should also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.