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Portugal faces greater challenge
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 25 - 06 - 2016

Cristiano Ronaldo awoke from his Euro 2016 slumber in time to rescue Portugal from an early exit, but faces a greater challenge against a classy Croatia side that Portugal coach Fernando Santos called "sharks."
Ronaldo made history as the first player to score in four European Championships with a double in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Hungary. The result saw Portugal just squeeze through behind Iceland and Hungary in third-place in Group F.
The Real Madrid star has more records in his sights as he is just one goal behind French legend Michel Platini's mark of nine in European Championship Finals.
However, Ronaldo refused to accept Portugal was underdog against a Croatia side that shocked two-time defending champion Spain to top Group D.
"We made it and now we face a very good team, but the odds are 50/50," said Ronaldo.
"Croatia are a tough team, with good players. Not every team manages beat Spain.
"We respect them, but we know our strengths and we'll look them in the eye when we face them."
Croatia is likely to be even stronger for Saturday's clash than against Spain with the return of Ronaldo's Real Madrid teammate Luka Modric from injury.
Juventus frontman Mario Mandzukic is also likely to shake off a knock to retake his place after Croatia coach Ante Cacic made five changes for the historic win over Spain.
"Croatia are one of the sharks we had been trying to avoid," admitted Portugal boss Santos.
"They placed first in a group with Spain, which tells you all you need to know about them."
However, Santos has placed his faith in Ronaldo to again answer his country's call after his double strike.
"This will have increased his confidence levels. He's a confident player anyway, but this will have boosted him for the next game against Croatia."
For Croatia a bright start to a tournament in France has rekindled memories of its fairytale run to the World Cup semi finals in 1998 before losing out to the hosts 2-1.
Ivan Perisic was the hero against Spain, drilling home the winner three minutes from time.
Intriguing
all-British showdown
The world's most expensive player, Gareth Bale of Wales, will face an ageing goalkeeper looking for a club in Saturday's intriguing all-British showdown against fellow debutants Northern Ireland for a place in the quarterfinals.
Bale, who has scored a goal in each game so far to help Wales top its group ahead of England, was expected to shine on the pitches of France.
It is a different story for Michael McGovern, whose heroics in the Northern Ireland goal have earned him a comparison to the great Pat Jennings by coach Martin O'Neill.
While Bale, 26, features prominently in the star-studded Real Madrid outfit, the 31-year-old McGovern is a free agent whose contract with struggling Scottish side Hamilton Academical has just expired.
The two now hold the key to Saturday's battle of the European championship first-timers at Parc des Princes, which Wales will start with an advantage after their convincing displays in the group stages showcased Bale's pace, skills and set-piece expertise.
Northern Ireland, making its first appearance at a major tournament since the 1982 World Cup, advanced as one of the best third-placed teams, taking full advantage of the expanded 24-team format which helped the less-fancied sides win a moment in the sun.
Whatever happens Saturday, both teams know they can rely on some of the most passionate fans in the tournament and there should be plenty of colour and noise in the Parc des Princes stands.
Lewandowski and
Shaqiri still to shine
Poland forward Robert Lewandowski and Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri, who have yet to shine at Euro 2016, will have another chance to brighten up the tournament when their teams clash in St Etienne Saturday.
Although neither player has had an especially bad tournament, they have yet to produce performances that match their billing as their teams' most creative players, and get on the scoresheet for the first time.
Lewandowski made it six international matches without scoring when he missed an early chance against Ukraine.
However, he still worked hard in attack and was always getting in position to receive the ball so there are no real concerns about his form.
"He has a lot of influence on the way we play," said coach Adam Nawalka. "He is an incredibly important player for us. He is our engine, like a locomotive and he provides us with power."
Similarly, Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic is unconcerned that Shaqiri, who scored a hat trick against Honduras in the World Cup two years ago, has not shown off his dribbling or long-range shooting skills.
"Individualists are having a tough time at his tournament," said Petkovic, "I'm satisfied that Xherdan is not an individualist at the moment, but a team player.
"He gives everything for the team and that's what he should keep doing. When the team goes well, everyone profits."
There are no clear favorites between two technically gifted sides who have both progressed beyond the group stage of the competition for the first time. — Agencies


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