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Wherefore Art Thou, Ronaldo?

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Vasco da Gama has dropped his astrolabe.

Fall River, Mass. my heart goes out to you. I know that Portuguese people take the utmost pride in the fortunes of their national team. My consolation does little to dull the pain after Thursday’s 3-2 smackdown by Germany in the 2008 Euro quarterfinals. I know you guys believed with every once of your heart that this was the year for Portugal. This was the year to finally carve the name Portugal on a major international trophy.

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This was it.

Blame Ronaldo. Blame Big Phil. Blame Ricardo. Blame the field. Blame the rain. Blame the ref. Blame the newly installed field at St. Jakob Park.

None of it matters. Sorry to say this, but for all the skill and world-class talent you guys have, they got dusted by Germany in stunning fashion. Stunning, in that you looked so unprepared for what Die Manschaff threw at you.

How does Bastian Schweinsteiger carve you up like a strudel only two years after doing the same exact thing during the 2006 World Cup third place game? This is Bastian Schweinsteiger. The guy is on wrappers of the Germany version of Slim Jim — Bifi. He scored one goal — one — for Bayern this season. Thursday he scored one and assisted the two others.

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Meanwhile, you guys had the best player in the world. Again, the best player in the world, the other guy wearing No. 7 out there — Cristiano Ronaldo. Point to the first Portugal goal before the end of the first half. He set that up. I’ll give you that. Hell, he almost got you level with a shot from the left side in the 44th minute.

But where was he the rest of the game? When Portugal was down 3-1 and gets it to 3-2, how many times did the Winker touch the ball? Granted, I’m watching on television, but was he man-marked out of the game? How is Ronaldo not demanding the ball, running at defenders and simply dominating?

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Everyone is entitled to a bad game, and Ronaldo is still without equal, but in a game like this, how does he finish with one shot on target? To add insult to injury, how does Miroslav Klose to get his head/shoulder completely free for the German’s second goal in less than five minutes with Ronaldo standing perplexed in front of him? Were you woozy from Klose rushing past you? Did Arthur Friedrich’s ankle-stomp really hurt that badly? Was your head caught up halfway between Manchester and Madrid?

Ronaldo did say he’s getting an operation on his foot for a lingering injury. Funny how these things always crop up after stunning losses like this. Ronaldo was wearing the captain’s armband by the end of the game; if you’re hurt, it’s your duty to allow fully healthy player the chance.

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It’s amazing. How were Simão, Nani and Helder Postiga at the forefront of the Portugal attempted comeback and not No. 7? Ronaldo goes down easier than (insert punchline), drawing fouls from as little as hard-stares by opponents, yet at 3-2 and German coach Joachim Löw ripping cigarettes in his UEFA-sanctioned penalty sky box, how do you not find a way to get a freekick and make them sweat? I’m not saying it’s the right way to play, but it’s the way you always play Cristiano, right?

This isn’t ripping Ronaldo for being a metrosexual icon. Or for being so over-the-top at times it comes off like a cheap Mike Myers villain. If you can’t respect Ronaldo, despite his antics, you don’t like sports.

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This isn’t resentment that he’s the best player in the world, either. When the Player of the Year awards come, he’s still the man. The thing is, with the passions of millions of Portuguese across the globe pining for something that’s eluded them for their entire lives and needing a miracle, instead of immortalizing himself in history, Ronaldo was nowhere to be found.

Portugal fans, it will be a long four years until Poland/Ukraine 2012. Ronaldo will be around 27 then. Keep your fingers crossed his international career doesn’t finish like Luis Figo 2.0.

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Thursday’s hero: Schweinsteiger, and essentially the entire German team sans maybe Per Mertesacker. Where had Bifi been saving this game? Changing boots before the freekick that set up Ballack’s winning goal? Brilliant! What were the pre-game odds he was Man-of-the-Match 50-to-1? More?

Thursday’s zero: Ricardo, Portugal goal keeper. Caught between stations on two goals. He will never live that one down. Hey, England, how does it feel now considering Ricardo’s heroics knocked you out of World Cup 2006 via penalties, and then two years later his gaffes allow arch rival Germany to advance. Really, if you saw the game, what more can I say about Ricardo? Brutal. (Good game-planning by Germany.)

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I am the greatest man who ever lived: All hail the mighty Poldi. What exactly is Lucas Podolski doing ahead of these major international tournaments? He simply cannot be contained on the left flank. And goodness gracious, that hit he attempted midway through the second half from a good 35-ish yards? It would have been one of the best goals ever. Ever. It could have halved the goal post. It’s hard to even think of someone playing better than he has in the last week.

An admitted overreaction, but… Enjoy the Big Phil Scolari era, Chelsea fans. It ought to be fun. Hope he can stay awake for those early morning kickoffs at Hull City. He seemed to have trouble keeping his eyes open in the first half Thursday. Then again, with how poor Portugal looked, would you want to watch?

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Weekend Preview (Quarterfinals):

Croatia v. Turkey, Today, Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna, Austria (2:30 p.m., ESPN): The good thing here is that the winner won’t be a ‘traditional’ power, both scenarios set up nice drama with Germany in the semifinals. Would Croatia be able to beat the Teutons twice in two weeks? All the Turks living in Germany would make that possibility fun for social demographers.

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Questions: Turkey had played from behind for two straight games, can it maintain that intensity yet again? … Despite some wonderful teamwork, will Croatia’s lack of a true goal poacher come back to bite them here? … What will Arda Turan’s price tag be after this one? … Will Turkey survive without Mehmet Aurelio in the midfield and, more importantly, first-choice keeper Volkan Demirel? And can graybeard Rüştü Reçber shake off the rust one more time? … What does Croat coach Slaven Bilic have up his sleeve? … Can Turkey disrupt the Croatian passing game? … Will the newest ‘next big thing’ Ivan Rakitić make an account for himself? … Can the Turk defense survive without Servet Çetin?

Player to Watch, Croatia: Niko Kovac. The longtime mainstay is retiring after this match. He might need to channel vintage Roy Keane and protect his less-hard midfielder teammates (Modric, Snra, Kranjcar) as the Turks figure to be chippy. Kovac needs to keep his head and can’t acquire any silly yellow cards.

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Player to Watch, Turkey: Nihat. When I wrote my all-group stage team yesterday, Nihat deserved a spot. He was that good in the amazing win over the Czechs. What a season this guy’s put together, spearheading Villareal’s second-place finish in La Liga and now making the Turks dream big. I pray to the soccer gods he can import some of his knowledge on new Yellow Submarine signee Jozy Altidore.

Outlook: Hate to go on the fence, but this truly could go either way. The Croatians are good, technical and hard to find any flaws. Turkey? All guts. Fatih Terim is called ‘the Emperor’ for a reason. He will not allow his team to give up. This is a rash judgment, but right now I’d rather ink Terim to coach my club team that Scolari, but who knows, maybe Terim can only work with Turks? He might be able to motivate his team, but it’ll have its work cut out to keep the ball off the Croatians feet. Turkey will have to excel on the counter, because the Croats will pass, pass and pass again and wait for the opening and we’ve seen the Turk defense can be exposed, especially with Hamit Altintop going forward. The Turks have shown some magic moments with back-to-back late winners. The odds of a third straight? If they do it, I’ll tip my cap toward the Bosporus … Croatia 1, Turkey 0

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The Netherlands v. Russia, Saturday, St. Jakob Park, Basel, Switzerland; (2:30 p.m., ABC): The Guus Hiddink bowl. This game is a great case study in how much coaching matters. Hiddink will know the Dutch game inside and out, so it’s up for his counterpart Marco van Basten to outthink him. Hiddink almost doesn’t have to do anything special. The Dutch, or at least the neurotic Oranje fans, will be constantly eyeing the former Netherlands coach. This might allow his players to sneak like Soviet spy planes over the North Pole in the 1950s. … One thing I’ve failed to mention about the Dutch. Did people such as myself dismiss them because in the officially licensed ‘Euro 2008’ game the Dutch don’t have their real names? Instead names like Michael Terwilliger and Hans Balabaster were used. Just a thought.

Questions: Can the Dutch play any better than they did in the group? … If so, can they maintain that level? … Are the young Russians hitting their strides at the right time? … Will Hiddink’s presence truly mean anything? … Will the Dutch defense finally be exposed? … Where will Khalid Boularouz’s head be at, considering his prematurely born daughter just died? … Will any Russian player sink that low to try to goad a red card from the noted ‘hard-man’? … Again, can the Dutch repeat what they’ve done? .. Are we jumping to over-rate the Russians off one game?

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Player to Watch, the Netherlands: Ruud van Nistelrooy. The big forward is making up for a lost 06 World Cup with an inspired Euro. The Russians saw David Villa, Fernando Torres and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their group, but van Nistelrooy brings a different element to the table. Van Nistelrooy has played the ‘center forward’ position like its written in a textbook in the tournament.

Player to Watch, Russia: Igor Akinfeev. The 22-year-old keeper won the UEFA Cup with CSKA as an 18-year-old, so he’s savvy ahead of his years. He’ll need to keep the rest of his young teammates composed from the backline against what should be a sustained Dutch attack.

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Outlook: We’ve seen one version of the Dutch, which attacks, attacks and attacks some more. With Russia we’ve seen three teams, the young team caught under a Spanish Armada. A middling team that caught a break vs. Greece. Finally, a blinding team that spanked Sweden up-and-down the field. Does Hiddink allow this game to be played at 100 mph, where the team with the freshest remaining wingbacks wins? Or does he take the conventional route and play for 1-0 or penalty kicks? With the team Russia has, Hiddink will probably throw caution into the wind. … Netherlands 1, Russia 2

Spain v. Italy, Sunday, Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna, Austria; (2:30 p.m., ABC): This is the marquee game of the weekend due to the nations involved. When you think European soccer, Spain and Italy jump right to the forefront. Seriously, this match could set a record for players using hair bands.

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Questions: Can Italy cobble a competitive team together without Gattuso and Pirlo? … Or how about a solid defense for that matter? … Does Luca Toni have 90+ plus in him to batter away at the Spanish defense. … Is anyone healthy to play defense for Spain? … And will Sergio Ramos stop doing dumb things? … Is there any humanly possible that if Marco Materazzi starts he doesn’t pick up a red card? … Can Daniel De Rossi lift the Italian midfield up by its scruff by his lonesome? … How does Spain not win this game by multiple goals? … Is the quartet of Torres, Villa, Xavi and Cesc the true ‘holy foursome’ that Brasil wished it had two years ago? … Has Massimo Ambrosini ever played a good game? … Will the fact a couple Italians play in Spain have any impact?

Player to Watch, Spain: Marcos Senna. Though most bill Spain coach Luis Aragones as a racist for his comments about Thierry Henry a couple years ago, the soon-to-be septuagenarian has favored playing the Brasilain-born Senna in the heart of his midfield. His defensive grit should allow the Spain attackers the freedom to pick apart the Italians.

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Player to Watch, Italy: Antonio Cassano. No matter what the lineup Donadoni begins with, Cassano should find the field in some capacity be it as a starter or a late sub for Alessandro Del Piero. Cassano is essentially batshit insane, an Italian Milton Bradley, as it were. Considering Bradley is leading the American League in hitting, what’s to say Cassano can’t revive his fortunes on Sunday? He did spend a spell at Real Madrid, so he should be familiar with the Spanish team. With all the injuries and suspensions, Cassano is the one true X-factor for the Azzuri.

Outlook: For the life of me I can’t find a single compelling reason that Italy can win. Spain is better plain and simple. Stranger things have happened. Maybe Roberto Donadoni can find a weakness, but how is Italy going to keep the ball or Spain off the scoreboard? Unless Gigi Buffon stands on his head and Spain hits the post five or six times, it’s not in the cards for Italy. Buffon was able to will Italy through the group, but Spain has too much firepower and is on the same page – something Italy isn’t – and it won’t be enough. … Spain 2, Italy 0

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