A massive European semi-final. The reigning champions up against an unpredictable underdog. Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas have been here before, just for very different teams. The two last faced each other in a semi-final match three years ago, at a time when the two stars still graced our shores in the Premier League. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United arrived in London full of swagger, they were the reigning Champions of Europe and already held a 1-0 lead in the tie. Cesc Fabregas’ Arsenal were the challengers, a team clearly capable of upsetting the odds even if many doubted they would do so.
When Spain play Portugal tonight, however, it will be Fabregas who will be lining up for the favourites to go through, while Ronaldo will be playing for the underdogs, Portugal. Yet if Fabregas is hoping to experience the opposite outcome to that semi-final defeat, his Spain side will do well to learn lessons from Ronaldo’s masterclass in North London in April. In the first five minutes of that game Arsenal pressed incredibly high up the pitch, stirring the crowd into the frenzy, forcing United onto the back foot. For those opening moments Arsenal genuinely looked like turning the tables and erasing their deficit. Yet minutes later from United’s first direct attack, a drilled Cristiano Ronaldo cross and a Kieron Gibbs slip, Arsenal were down and out. Two minutes later Ronaldo scored one of his famed free-kicks to silence the crowd, reducing The Emirates to its familiar hushed silence. In the second half, as Arsenal pressed and pushed in vain, Manchester United killed them off definitively with one of the all time great counter-attacking goals. The man at the centre of it was, of course, Ronaldo. He instigated the move with a short pass to Ji-Sung Park on the edge of his own area and then ferociously stormed down the length of the field to slot home just seconds later. How Manchester United fans must miss those dreamlike Ronaldo evenings.
Portugal are not the same force as that vintage Manchester United side (I'm not quite sure where Postiga would fit alongside Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney
Of course, tonight’s clash between Spain and Portugal remains an entirely different encounter. Spain are a far, far superior outfit to the Arsenal of 2009 and 2012’s Portugal are not the same force as that vintage Manchester United side (I'm not quite sure where Postiga would fit alongside Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney). Spain will be more probing in attack, and less gutless in defence than any recent Arsenal side. Yet their game plan will be broadly similar against Portugal tonight as Arsenal’s was in 2009. Like Arsenal , and as they always do, Spain will force the issue against Portugal and will press Ronaldo’s side high up the pitch. The plan to stop Ronaldo will be simple, don’t let him have the ball. By excluding Portugal from possession, Spain aim to simply shut Ronaldo out of the game.
Yet when it comes to Ronaldo, there can absolutely no room for error whatsoever. As Arsenal found out to their cost, there is no player more devastating on the counter-attack than Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s brutal demolition of the Gunners was breathtaking, and it is scary to think that he has only got better since his switch to Real Madrid. At United his big-game temperament was often called under question, yet over the last three years in Madrid Ronaldo has definitively and unequivocally quashed all doubts. In a record breaking in La Liga season he demonstrated to his Spanish opponents his lethal prowess in front of goal. Barcelona’s contingent including Fabregas will be particularly mindful of the most recent Clásico when, while pressing for an equalizer, they were caught out by Ronaldo’s phenomenal pace and found themselves 3-1 down.
Whatever the result tonight, one conclusion remains certain: the Premier League is an infinitely poorer place without Ronaldo and Fabregas present.
Fabregas himself has also blossomed since a switch to La Liga. The Barcelona player, who on that night in Islington was playing in that most antiquated of systems, the 4-4-2, as a box-to-box midfielder, has this season emerged as a creative forward with an eye for goal. His nine goals for Barcelona this season, as well as his success as a false nine for Spain, makes you wonder why Arsene Wenger ever persisted with such labourers as Chamakh and Arshavin in his front three when Fabregas would have surely wreaked havoc on Premiership defences.
Whatever the result tonight, one conclusion remains certain: the Premier League is an infinitely poorer place without Ronaldo and Fabregas present. It was only three years ago when the two faced each other, for English sides, in the semi-final of Europe’s elite competition. That season 3 out of the 4 semi-finalists were English clubs, yet it was Barcelona who ultimately triumphed, instigating a dominance from which the Premier League heavyweights have never recovered. Seeing the two Iberian maestros strut their stuff will not only serve as a reminder of how far they have both come since leaving us, but also a painful reality check of the Premier League’s diminishing status on the world stage.
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