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Irreplaceable or burden? Ronaldo debate sweeps Portugal

Bernardo Silva could not help but laugh when he heard the question about one of the biggest elephants in the room in Portugal.

“In the national team, when you’re all listening to the pre-match team talk, do you accept the tactical instructions right away or sometimes react like, ‘Ronaldo, man, can’t it be another way?’” asked Ricardo Araujo Pereira, a famous comedian and writer, during a show in March.

It was obviously a joke – and the Manchester City midfielder promptly denied that Ronaldo is the one giving orders – but such is the forward’s power within the dressing room that many in the country assume it to be true.

Although he was expected to retire from international football after the last World Cup, the Portugal legend remains a huge influence and will play at a record sixth European Championship this summer in Germany.

“I faced Ronaldo while coaching Everton in 2013,” Portugal manager Roberto Martinez told Canal 11. “For most players, when the body starts failing, the head accepts it. In his case, it seems to be the opposite. The body will only stop when the head says it has to stop.

“It’s incredible when a player of his age has the habits and the desire of an 18-year-old. He has an elite-level mindset and no limits. He’s been with the national team for 20 years now. That’s unique.”

And still, despite being 39, Ronaldo has indicated he has no plans to leave the international stage.

The former Manchester United star has told Martinez that his goal is to reach 250 Portugal caps. He currently has 207.

However, in order to achieve that, he will have to deal with growing criticism from fans back home who believe Portugal perform better without him.

It is nothing new, and followed former coach Fernando Santos and now Martinez.

“Even considering everything Ronaldo represents, it doesn’t make any sense for him to be an undisputed starter any more,” Sofia Oliveira, a football pundit for CNN Portugal, DAZN Portugal and TSF radio, told BBC Sport.

“It’s also true that this transition would be a lot smoother if he realised himself that this role no longer suits him.

“It seems clear to me that his presence in the team conditions other players around him. Just look at their actions and you’ll see that sometimes they search for Ronaldo in contexts that don’t benefit the team. And then there’s the issue that he doesn’t want to spend much time without the ball, so he tracks back to areas occupied by other players, with his positional anarchy affecting them.”

‘His impact would be bigger from the bench’

Not even finishing Portugal’s perfect qualifying campaign as second-top scorer to Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku with 10 goals and as the country’s third-most used player with 725 minutes, only behind Ruben Dias and Bruno Fernandes, has proved enough for Ronaldo to put the debate to bed.

It certainly does not help that the only game he missed during the Euro qualifiers – a 9-0 win over Luxembourg – is rated as the greatest of the Martinez era so far.

The Spanish boss has refused, however, to enter the discussion about the situation of the Al-Nassr forward, claiming instead that Portugal are “prepared to win without him”.

Of the three preparation games for the Euros, Ronaldo only took part in Tuesday’s win over Republic of Ireland and he received some praise, not only for his brace but also for a more team-player attitude on the pitch.

He said following the 3-0 win over Ireland that, “regardless of whether I play or not, I’ll respect the coach’s decisions.”

“Honestly, I believe that his impact would be much bigger coming from the bench,” Oliveira said.

“And I don’t refer only to his goals and assists because we all know he’s capable of scoring against the likes of the Czech Republic and Georgia. I mean his overall performance because what we’ve seen plenty of times is Ronaldo playing as many minutes as possible and ultimately finding the net, but, if we look at his exhibitions in detail, the number of his negative actions was higher than the positive ones.”

Portugal’s most traditional sports newspaper A Bola has even hinted that the wrong question is being posed to Martinez.

Instead of whether the Euro 2016 winners play better without their captain, it argues it should be: “When is the right time for the normality of this team to be the absence of Ronaldo and not his presence?”This is the first time Portugal have won every qualification game for a major tournament.

They did so in style, scoring more goals (36) and conceding fewer (two) than any other nation, while playing some exciting football, especially in the final part of the campaign.

Having gone through a group that included Slovakia, Luxembourg, Iceland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Liechtenstein, there is the feeling, though, that this team has not truly been tested.

A 2-1 friendly defeat by Croatia earlier this month was seen as a reality check for them, being a first test against a strong side and a poor performance from the team.

“There have been games where Portugal frankly didn’t play well and yet ended up thrashing their opponents. And it’s exactly for this that they are candidates to win the Euros again – because of the unbelievable amount of individual talent this team has. It’s their best generation ever,” Oliveira said.

And if they are to return home with the European Championship trophy, they will need Bruno Fernandes playing at the peak of his powers.

The midfield maestro may not have had his best season with Manchester United, but he has become Portugal’s main man under Martinez, hitting six goals and eight assists in 10 qualifiers.

Perhaps most importantly, the number eight has shown that he and Manchester City midfielder Silva can play well together for their country.

“That’s arguably the best news we’ve had so far. The worst one is the total lack of use of Vitinha,” added Oliveira.

How can I watch Portugal v Czech Republic?
This match is being shown live on BBC One, with build-up getting under way at 19:35 BST.

Coverage is being presented by Gary Lineker with Alan Shearer, Frank Lampard and Cesc Fabregas alongside him.

There is full commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live and you can also follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.

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