COMMENT: Jurgen Klinsmann’s men can qualify with a victory in Manaus on Sunday but know they must overcome the reigning Ballon d’Or winner to get the points they need
How can you stop a player who can do it all? How do you deal with someone who can beat you with a leaping header, or a blistering shot, or a well-placed free-kick, or a speedy run and an expert finish? How do you defend a player who, when on his game, commands “best player in the world” status as if he was born for it?
Cristiano Ronaldo is yet to shine in Brazil. He is also being hindered by a persistent knee problem. But the mere fact he is playing through the pain and, in the opinion of one doctor, risking his entire career should tell you everything you need to know about his determination to make an impact at the World Cup. That alone makes him dangerous.
How will the USA stop him? Key, of course, will be organised team defending, combined with effective and sustained possession and a few Hail Marys. It will require playing better than the Americans played against Ghana, and will demand defensive improvement from shaky full-backs Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley.
The first step towards stopping Ronaldo is realising he is not alone on the field. He will have a dangerous Portuguese attack around him.
“If you can get caught up, if you pay too much attention to Ronaldo, someone else will beat us,” Tim Howard told reporters. “We’ve got to be diligent and we’ve got to be aware of their danger men. We’ve talked about it. We have a game plan in place and now we just have to go execute it.
“He’s the main man. He’s probably the main man in this tournament. We have to know where he is. We have to try to collectively get around and get some help and support each other defensively, but no, he’s certainly not the only one.”
Containing Ronaldo begins in the midfield and means cutting off the supply lines to a player who can punish you in any number of ways. Pepe’s early red card against Germany forced Portugal to remove midfielder Miguel Veloso at half-time of their opening match, which also limited the support for creative midfielders Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles.
For the Americans, having Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman working to neutralise Moutinho and Meireles will be crucial.
Former USA World Cup hero and current Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel has studied Portugal closely as part of his coaching licence work, and he sees Portugal’s combination play on the right flank being key to freeing up Ronaldo for potential one-on-one situations.
“When [Ronaldo] plays on the left-hand side Portugal doesn’t attack through him too often. They tend to attack through [Joao] Pereira, their right-back, and link up with Moutinho and Nani on the right-hand side,” Friedel told Goal. “It allows the other team to come over to cover then switch the play to try to isolate Ronaldo. So that’s going to be Johnson at times in the game, he’s going to be isolated one vs one.
“So it’s going to be up to [Geoff] Cameron to make sure his spacing is very good so he can cover and try to double up as Ronaldo cuts inside.”
Johnson will likely spend the bulk of his time trying to stay with Ronaldo, with Cameron supporting centrally and either Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi providing support from the wing. Ronaldo could switch wings and work the right, where the weaker DaMarcus Beasley might well struggle to deal with his speed.
If Ronaldo does beat the USA defence, it will be up to Howard to stop a player he knows very well. The Everton goalkeeper spent three seasons as Ronaldo’s team-mate at Manchester United and two more seasons facing him as an opponent. They both arrived at Old Trafford the same summer and Howard remembers a player who he could tell early on had something unique to offer.
“We always knew he was special from the moment he stepped through the door,” Howard insisted. “He had skills that I had never seen before. Could you imagine that he would be World Player of the Year? Not at that time, but he certainly had the tools.
“He’s the single hardest working player I’ve ever been around, on and off the field. His work ethic is incredible.”
Howard will be the last line of defence for an American back line that will be tested in any number of ways by Ronaldo and Portugal team-mates Nani, Moutinho and Eder. With Portugal’s defence potentially missing three of its four starters through injury and suspension, USA could have some success in the attacking half of the pitch, but that won’t matter if Ronaldo is allowed to run wild and break loose like he did in the second leg of Portugal’s World Cup qualifying play-off in November, when his hat-trick sent Sweden packing and Paulo Bento’s men to Brazil.
The Americans are aware of what Ronaldo can do, and Klinsmann insists his team is ready to contain the Real Madrid star and send USA into the round of 16.
“This is now the moment where you can prove yourself, this is moment where you can step up and play those guys and put them in place,” ht told reporters. “We want to put Cristiano and his team in place. We want to get out there with all the energy we have, with all the discipline that we’re going to bring and all the aggressiveness we’re going to bring to the plate and make it our game.”
If Klinsmann’s gameplan works, and Ronaldo has a quiet night in the Amazon, the Americans have a very good chance of securing a good result. If not, the world’s best player could announce himself on the biggest stage of all.