The Euro 2016 quarter finals start Thursday with Cristiano Ronaldo seeking a new step towards his first international title when Portugal take on Poland in Marseille.
In the battle of Europe’s top strikers, Poland will be counting on Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski to deaden the Ronaldo threat by scoring his first goal in the tournament.
The match starts four days of tense and historic encounters which will see Germany seeking a first win at a major tournament against Italy, Wales playing for British honour against Belgium and France face giantkillers Iceland.
Poland and Portugal, whose game starts at 1900 GMT, have both underachieved at Euros and the World Cup and both now have a golden opportunity to make a name on international level.
The winner will face Belgium or Wales in the semi-final avoiding the favoured heavyweights.
Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos said neither side should be confident. “There is no favourite, it is 50-50.”
Much focus will be on Ronaldo, a regular match-winner for Real Madrid who has never enjoyed success with Portugal.
But the 31-year-old is just one goal away from more European history by matching French legend Michel Platini’s record mark of nine goals in the Euro finals. He is already the first player to score in four Euros.
Santos said the superstar can handle the expectations.
“It is a natural thing some are mentioned more than others because they are amazing players. Ronaldo knows how to deal with that,” said Santos.
– injury concerns –
Lewandowski got the most goals of any player in qualifying for the finals. But he has not scored in four games in France. Poland must thank its powerful defence for much of its success at Euro 2016.
Poland coach Adam Nawalka insists he still has full confidence in Lewandowski. But he is also wating for Ajax Amsterdam striker Arkadiusz Milik to come good for Poland.
Milik said he has tried to learn from Ronaldo. “It will be special for me to play against him tomorrow, but of course I will try to focus on my team instead of looking up to him.”
Portugal have fitness concerns over Raphael Guerreiro, Andre Gomes and Joao Moutinho, so 18-year-old Renato Sanches could start for the first time in the tournament.
Sanches showed why German giants Bayern Munich paid Benfica 35 million euros ($38 million) for his services as he came off the bench to win man-of-the-match in the last 16 victory against Croatia.
However, Santos said: “He only started working with us in March. He is still growing and it is up to me to analyse and decide if he can be useful for the team.”
The match is followed by Wales against Belgium in Lille on Friday. The stadium could be dominated by Belgian fans who are expected to flood across the nearby border for the day.
World champions Germany play Italy, with their powerful defence, in Bordeaux on Saturday hoping to end a run of eight defeats by their opponents in major tournaments.
Iceland are looking to put pressure on another major European side when they take on hosts France at the Stade de France on Sunday. – Agence France-Presse