Seville: Cristiano Ronaldo certainly attracts most of the attention, just not all of the attention.
Ronaldo is on the verge of becoming the all-time leading scoring in international soccer. He can set that record tonight when Portugal faces Belgium in the round at 16 of the European Championship.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez wants to make sure his players won’t only be looking at Ronaldo, though.
“When you put a plan against a player specifically, you could be hurt by other players,” Martinez said. “Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo seems to be the player that gets the right moment, that right pass and the right chance and you have to be always aware, but you have to defend the 10 players of Portugal in the same measure.”
Martinez said Portugal has “an incredible accumulation” of good players in its squad to support Ronaldo, from Bernardo Silva to Diogo Jota to Bruno Fernandes to Renato Sanches to Joao Moutinho.
“You know why this team has been successful, you know why this team has won the Euros and the Nations League,” Martinez said. “It’s because they’ve got an incredible mentality and they know how to play big games.”
Ronaldo is the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals after three matches. He is one goal from breaking the overall men’s scoring record in international soccer. The 36-year-old Juventus striker is level with former Iran striker Ali Daei at 109 goals.
“We all know he’s one of the best footballers in the world,” Martinez said. “Every player adapts when you get a little bit older, you become a little more clinical with what you do. I think Cristiano Ronaldo knows how to use the space, he penetrates from different areas, he’s got an incredible aerial threat.”
But Belgium also has its threats, from Kevin De Bruyne to Eden Hazard to Romelu Lukaku, who has three goals entering the knockout stages. De Bruyne and Hazard, along with Axel Witsel, are back after gradually returning to the team during the group matches. They had not been completely available during Belgium’s preparations because of injuries.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos said he also isn’t preparing a plan to contain specific Belgium players.
“We can’t give their team space. We can’t let them think without being disrupted by us,” Santos said. “They have been playing together for a long time.”
The Red Devils, ranked No. 1 in the world, have won 13 straight games, including its three group games at Euro 2020 and all 10 qualifiers for the tournament.
“We are full of confidence, full of momentum,” Martinez said. “We look forward to seeing how we can improve and how much we can enjoy this occasion, because at the end of the day, it’s when we enjoy our football that we play at our best, and we need to do that.”
Belgium had two more rest days than Portugal for a match that is expected to be played in hot conditions in southern Spain. There was also concern from both teams about the field conditions at La Cartuja Stadium, which was built for the 1999 track world championships.
Portugal had only one win in its three group matches, against Hungary in the opener. It then lost to Germany and drew with France to advance from the difficult Group F as one of the best third-place teams.
Portugal had only one win in 90 minutes during the entire tournament at Euro 2016, when it eventually broke through with its first major title by beating host France in the final.
Belgium is now the team trying to end its title drought and lift its first major trophy. It was runner-up at the European Championship in 1980, and finished third three years ago at the World Cup for its best finish at that tournament.
“This is a special generation, it’s been committed to international football,” Martinez said. “We’ve been working a lot in becoming better. We’ve got six players with very close to 100 caps, two players very close to 90 caps. This is an exceptional generation. We are just trying to adapt to what’s going to be needed tonight and be as good as we can.”