Paris: Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal tower above their rivals and should ease into the knockout stages at Euro 2016, but the illustrious team cannot underestimate a blossoming Austria side.
Ranked eighth in the world, Portugal cruised towards a sixth straight appearance at the finals — in Group F against Austria, Hungary and Iceland — by reeling off seven straight qualifying wins after an opening defeat to Albania.
But 12 years after the losing the final to Greece on home soil, Ronaldo’s hopes of landing an international title appear remote unless his supporting cast can deliver where they have failed in the past.
Portugal lost on penalties to Spain in the semi-finals at Euro 2012 and then crashed out in the group stage of the World Cup in Brazil. Ronaldo, slowed by a knee injury, was then a shadow of the player who won that year’s Ballon d’Or.
“If he is so important in Madrid, just imagine he’s the same if not more so with Portugal,” coach Fernando Santos told Spanish sports daily Marca.
“When you have a player who scores 50 or 60 goals a season, and can always score, they are vitally important.
– Underrated Austrians -“But Cristiano can’t win alone. No one can win matches on their own. He needs help from the others. But, for sure, he’s more important for us than he is for Madrid.”
The Portuguese have never failed to advance beyond the group stage at a European Championship and Ronaldo will fancy his chances of becoming the first player to score at four editions.
But Santos admitted Ronaldo, who netted Real’s winning penalty in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid having laboured through 120 minutes in Milan, is unlikely to be fully fit in France although he shrugged off any genuine concerns about his skipper.
“Look, they always took about players having to arrive at 100%, but it’s never the reality,” said Santos.
“Obviously, the ideal thing would be for him to be at his best, but I would never leave out a Cristiano at 80 percent.”
Austria flew under the radar as they topped their qualifying section ahead of Russia and Sweden, with Marcel Koller’s men participating at the finals for just the second time having co-hosted the 2008 event.
Austria broke into the world top 10 for the first time in November and in versatile Bayern Munich star David Alaba they possess one of Europe’s most coveted players.
But the 23-year-old also has the likes of Marko Arnautovic, Zlatko Junuzovic and skipper Christian Fuchs to help ease the burden. Austria, ranked above England, Italy and France, has the potential to finish far higher than the one that exited with just a single point on their debut appearance.
“We did very well in qualifying and we’ve been enjoying more and more success in recent years and have constantly improved,” Alaba told bundesliga.com.
“Our biggest strength, though, is the collective and it’s this which sets us apart. We want to get even better and we certainly are no longer a team who need to have any fear.”
Iceland — with a population of 330,000 — became the smallest nation to qualify for the finals after twice beating 1988 European champions the Netherlands as well as Czech Republic and Turkey.
Swansea City midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson supplied a team-leading six goals and the Nordic side will use the experience of former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback and ex-Chelsea and Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, now 37, as they plot further surprises.
Hungary returned to the finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup after beating Norway 3-1 on aggregate in the play-offs, but the current generation is a far cry from the Ferenc Puskas-inspired Magical Magyars of the 1950s.
The Hungarians lack genuine star quality but goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly, 40, is poised to become the oldest player in tournament history — eclipsing the record set by Germany’s Lothar Matthaus, who appeared aged 39 years and 91 days at Euro 2000.