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Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal gestures during a training session at Heidewaldstadion in Guetersloh on June 14. Picture: KEVIN C COX/GETTY IMAGES
Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal gestures during a training session at Heidewaldstadion in Guetersloh on June 14. Picture: KEVIN C COX/GETTY IMAGES

Leipzig — The joint top-scorers at the last European Championship will face each other as Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal play Patrik Schick’s Czech Republic in their Euro 2024 Group F opener on Tuesday.

Ronaldo and Schick both scored five at the Covid-delayed Euro 2020 and are likely to shoulder the goalscoring burden for their sides this time.

The tournament could be Ronaldo’s international swansong, though the 39-year-old appears as hungry for goals and adulation as ever as he prepares to kick off his sixth Euros.

While he may have moved away from Europe’s elite to play in Saudi Arabia, the goal-getting instincts of the leading scorer in men’s international football still seem razor-sharp.

Having finished second-top scorer in qualifying with 10 goals and smashed 35 in 31 league games for Al-Nassr last season, Ronaldo warmed up for the tournament with a brace in their final friendly against Ireland.

While he lifted the trophy in 2016, he may still be harbouring a sense of unfinished business on the international stage. Having sat out most of that final eight years ago through injury, he has failed to propel Portugal to further glory at two subsequent World Cups or at Euro 2020, when they were knocked out in the last 16. This has been one of Portugal's most gilded generations but with Ronaldo and 41-year-old defender Pepe in the twilight of their careers, Euro 2024 has the feel of a last hurrah.

With a squad bulging with talent, Portugal will be, on paper, one of the best teams in Germany. They won all of their 10 games in the qualifiers, scoring 36 and conceding twice.

Yet their manager Roberto Martinez knows all about the pitfalls of leading a supremely talented bunch of players at international tournaments, having failed to turn Belgium's so-called golden generation into tournament winners.

Martinez, however, knows he has arguably the game’s best in Ronaldo.

“We have 23 players. We create competitiveness and the game makes decisions,” he said recently. “But Cristiano is prepared to help the team and give everything he can give. And there is no other player in the world of soccer who can bring what Cristiano can to the dressing room.”

Schick, who won goal of the tournament at Euro 2020 for his stunner against Scotland from the halfway line, will spearhead a Czech side with very different expectations. The Czechs finished second in qualifying behind Albania, winning four of their eight matches in a group that also included Poland, Moldova and the Faroe Islands.

With Schick absent from the final rounds of qualifying, they found goals hard to come by but, fresh from winning the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen, he seems to have shaken off the injuries that hampered him and that could spell trouble for Portugal.

Reuters

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