In what could be his final international tournament, we take a look at the impact Cristiano Ronaldo might have for Portugal at Euro 2024.

Portugal sealed their place at the 2024 UEFA European Championship as the only team to manage a 100% record in qualification (10 matches, 10 wins). They have a squad stacked with world-class talent who ply their trade for Europe’s elite clubs, are one of the favourites to win the competition, yet even at 39 years of age, there is one name that continues to dominate the conversation when it comes to A Seleção, and that name is Cristiano Ronaldo.

At what will be his 11th and likely final international tournament for Portugal (though never say never, #WorldCup2026), there is widespread speculation as to what type of role Ronaldo will play at Euro 2024 and is he, despite his grand age, still capable of leading this generation of Seleção players to glory in Germany this summer?

When Roberto Martínez was appointed Portugal manager in January 2023, it felt as though it was the right time for a fresh start. Portugal won their first ever major honour at Euro 2016, defeating France 1-0 in the final before following it up with a second title, the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019 after beating the Netherlands 1-0 – with both triumphs coming under Fernando Santos.

However, as the years ticked by, it was clear Portugal needed to move past the perhaps defensive and restrictive football played towards the end of Santos’ tenure. A change in coach brought about an opportunity for Portugal to hurtle into the future, to really let the handbrake off and allow the plethora of talent in this current crop of players to finally explode on the pitch.

The big question though was what would Martínez choose to do with Ronaldo? Would he make a huge statement and give this Portuguese behemoth fewer minutes, perhaps using him as an impact player from the bench? Would Ronaldo still feature heavily, with the former Belgium manager perhaps choosing to lean on the 39-year-old’s experience and insatiable hunger to get Portugal through qualifying and into the tournament?

When it comes to the answer to those questions around how Martínez would use Ronaldo, the proof is very much in the pudding when we look at the numbers around Portugal’s Euro 2024 qualifying campaign; only Bruno Fernandes (10) started more matches for the Seleção, with Ronaldo starting nine of their 10 matches.

The one match the former Real Madrid and Manchester United star didn’t start was only through suspension in the 9-0 win over Luxembourg in September 2023. In terms of overall minutes, only Fernandes (844) and Rúben Dias (810) played more than Ronaldo’s 726. Those numbers point towards Ronaldo very much playing a leading role for Portugal at the tournament in June.

Ronaldo in the Picture, but No Longer the Whole Picture

In terms of his performance during qualifying, it couldn’t have gone much better for Ronaldo. He netted 10 goals in nine appearances, at least four more than any other Portugal player and with only Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku (14) scoring more than him.

Ronaldo Euro 2024 qualifying xG

Questions could be asked about the level of opposition Portugal faced during qualifying (Slovakia, Luxembourg, Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Liechtenstein) but as the old saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. Ronaldo’s ability to constantly get himself in a position where is able to make an impact, regardless of the level of opposition, is one of the aspects that’s got him so far in his career, with the veteran forward still celebrating each goal as though it was his very first.

A key tactical change under Martínez is that Portugal are relying less on Ronaldo than in previous years, though. In the past, there was a feeling Portugal’s Plan A was to give the ball to Ronaldo and hope he would find a solution and that Plan B was to simply try Plan A again. Under Martínez, that’s not the case.

During Euro 2024 qualifying, Ronaldo averaged 36.9 touches per match, with 16 other Portugal players averaging more. Overall, 10 of Ronaldo’s teammates had more touches than his 332. With so much technical ability in midfield and attack in the likes of Bernardo Silva, Fernandes, Vitinha, Rafael Leão and João Félix, Portugal don’t need Ronaldo to be that previous all-action version of himself from a decade ago, a CR7 who felt it was his duty to drag his team over the line as he did so often. The fact is he isn’t that player anymore and at 39, nor should he be.

Instead, Martínez is trying to build on his idea of what a free-flowing, attacking Portugal should look like and incorporate Ronaldo at the same time. It’s scaled his responsibility back, instead relying on the Al-Nassr forward to use his experience and killer instinct be there to finish moves off, rather than needing him to be heavily involved in the build-up or trying to dribble past opponents down the flanks.

In Euro 2024 qualifying, Ronaldo didn’t complete a single cross and only completed three dribbles. Crucially, though, he attempted 46 shots, 24 more than any other Seleção player, and got 19 on target, seven more than any other player. He scored 10 goals, four more than any other Portugal player.

A Lack of Competition?

Much has been said about Portugal’s explosive attacking display in their qualifying campaign – and rightly so. They scored 36 goals, seven more than any other nation, while Martínez’s side also had the most shots on target (81), expected goals (28.8), shots (190), big chances (47) and the touches in the opposition box (405).

Most goals Euro 2024 qualifying

At club level, though, it has been a very different story for Portuguese players in 2023-24. Across Europe’s top five leagues, the highest-scoring Portuguese player was Paris Saint-Germain’s Gonçalo Ramos with just 11 Ligue 1 goals; only three Portuguese players managed to hit double figures at all, with Fernandes (10) and Diogo Jota (10) also doing so for Manchester United and Liverpool respectively.

In truth, if Martínez did want to drop Ronaldo and replace him with a perhaps more dynamic and younger forward, it has been made nigh on impossible to do so because no player has really put together a scintillating run in front of goal at club level, the type of season that makes their inclusion at the tip of the Portuguese attack a formality.

Instead, the domestic goalscoring seasons from those attacking players have been somewhat ordinary, with Jota arguably the exception. He managed to plunder his 10 goals in just 14 starts (21 appearances) and boasted an impressive average of a goal every 115 minutes. His issue isn’t his ability in front of goal, though, rather his persistent injury issues that have been the key problem.

Diogo Jota Premier League 2023-24

Then there’s Ronaldo. While his exploits and achievements in the Saudi Pro League won’t be looked at the same way as they would if he was in one of the top five European leagues, he remains hungry and fiercely driven to continually score a frankly ridiculous amount of goals.

He finished as the top scorer in the Saudi league this season, scoring 35 goals in 31 appearances, seven more than the next best (Aleksandar Mitrović – 28 goals). This is possibly a factor in why Martínez feels so comfortable in giving an ageing Ronaldo a prominent role at the tournament, not just because of what he brings but also because it feels like no player has really stepped up this season and established themselves as the player who can usurp Ronaldo.

Whatever happens in Germany, Ronaldo will be hoping to do what he has always done at the UEFA European Championship and that is score goals. He is the competition’s top scorer with 14, five goals clear of anyone else, netting at least once in every single of one of his previous five Euros tournaments.

In 2016, he had to leave the pitch through injury in the final against France as Portugal lifted their first ever senior international trophy. If they’re to get that far this time around, Ronaldo will be hoping he can take centre stage for what could very well be his last dance.

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