Ronaldo’s time to shine after Neymar and Messi take centre stage

Adrian Back 16/06/2014
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Confident moos: Cristiano Ronaldo is fully fit and raring to go at the Brazil World Cup.

We may be just four days into the World Cup but already we have seen some of the biggest names in world football make a major statement.

In the opening game of the tournament it was Brazil superstar Neymar who grabbed the headlines courtesy of two goals in the win over Croatia.

Next up it was the turn of Dutch duo Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie who starred in the Netherlands’ crushing 5-1 win over Spain.

Mario Balotelli then proved he was the man for the big occasion as he headed past former teammate Joe Hart to seal a 2-1 win over England.

On Sunday night it was Real Madrid’s hugely talented striker Karim Benzema who shone by grabbing a brace in France's 3-0 win over Honduras before Lionel Messi took centre stage in Argentina's 2-1 win over Bosnia. 

The Argentina captain had a hand in the first goal but it was his strike in the second half that had tongues wagging. After exchanging passes with Gonzalo Higuain, Messi would dart past a pair of defenders before slamming home a shot via the base of the left-hand post from 20 yards.

Messi deservedly gained the plaudits but now attention turns to the player who took his mantle as the best footballer in the world last season; Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 29-year-old is at the peak of his powers. He was instrumental in helping Real Madrid win their 10th European crown, while his four goals in the two-legged play-off with Sweden ensured Portugal qualified for the World Cup.

Like Neymar and Messi, Ronaldo carries a weight of expectation on his broad shoulders. The Portuguese public expect brilliance every time he steps onto a football pitch, and more than not he delivers.

But in his first match of the 2014 World Cup it will certainly not be easy for Ronaldo to take centre stage. Facing a tough, determined and hugely talented Germany side he will come up against some of the best defenders in European football.

However, with the way the World Cup is unfolding in Brazil it seems almost inevitable that Ronaldo will make a major statement. Having seen Barcelona duo Messi and Neymar star, this Madridista has all the motivation he needs.

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Messi delighted with opening win as he praises tactical switch

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Star of the show: Lionel Messi.

Lionel Messi left the Maracana with a smile on his face following his man of the match performance against Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"We have things we need to improve but it was a good first game at the World Cup," the 26-year-old captain said after setting up Argentina's first goal and then scoring the decisive second after a stunning burst from midfield.

"Everyone was anxious to do well. The result was the most important," he added, before admitting that a half-time tactical tweak by coach Alejandro Sabella proved crucial in helping him flourish after the restart.

Argentina switched from a system with three central defenders to their customary 4-3-3, with Gonzalo Higuain joining the attack and helping set up Messi's goal.

"I think it was a great second half. We had the ball, created chances. That is how we need to carry on, playing the way we did in the second half.

"The important thing is that we started well, but the system (in the second half) for us strikers obviously is better because we have more chances to hit them on the break and more options for the pass when we bring the ball out.

"It favours us strikers I think. We struggled a bit in the first half and had possession too far away from their goal. It was difficult, but we used the two systems and we won the game, which is the most important thing."

The Barcelona superstar was also impressed with the atmosphere generated by the large Argentinian contingent in the Maracana crowd of close to 75,000.

"The stadium is impressive and it was great to see so many Argentinians, which I'm sure will be the same in Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre. It was a great atmosphere and it makes me proud," he said.

Argentina take on Iran in Belo Horizonte next Saturday, June 21, before facing Nigeria in their final Group F game in Porto Alegre on June 25

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Argentina win as Messi lights up the Maracana

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Magical Messi: The Barcelona superstar celebrates after scoring a stunning goal for Argentina.

The pressure is on Lionel Messi to make this his World Cup, and he could not have started in better fashion than conjuring the marvellous strike that sealed Argentina's 2-1 win against Bosnia-Hercegovina on Sunday.

The game at the mythical Maracana in Rio de Janeiro was 65 minutes old when Messi collected possession just inside the Bosnian half of the field and accelerated towards goal.

Messi exchanged passes with Gonzalo Higuain before cutting inside and firing a low shot into the net off a post from the edge of the area to put Argentina 2-0 up, while his marker Muhamed Besic, trailing in his wake, ended up on the floor.

With substitute Vedad Ibisevic later pulling one back for the World Cup debutants, Messi's effort turned out to be decisive. It was a goal worthy of winning any game, and they don't come much better than a World Cup match at the Maracana, especially for Argentina and their colourful, noisy support.

And despite that, Messi typically played down his contribution after the game.

"The second goal was special for me because of the occasion, but the result was the most important," he said after collecting his man of the match award. "We have things we need to improve but it was a good first game for us to start the World Cup."

Set to turn 27 later this month, Messi should only now be at the peak of a career that has already delivered so much, including a record goal haul for Barcelona, three Champions Leagues and four Ballons d'Or.

But to cement his legacy as an all-time great, he surely has to match his great compatriot Diego Maradona and lead Argentina to World Cup glory.

Major international tournaments define the greatest players of each generation, and that is something Messi — a year older now than Maradona was in his 1986 World Cup campaign — can only be too aware of.

He took to the field at the Maracana sporting the captain's armband and his evening got off to the perfect start.

The game was only three minutes old when his free-kick from wide on the left was helped on by Marcos Rojo and turned into the net by hapless Bosnian defender Sead Kolasinac.

However, rather than set the tone for the rest of the evening, Alejandro Sabella's side appeared unsure what to do next. 

Messi produced one slaloming run into the penalty box shortly before the break, but otherwise he was all too often reduced to walking pace as neither Angel Di Maria nor Maxi Rodriguez in midfield provided him with a sufficient supply line.

Sabella wanted more and he changed things around at half-time, replacing one of his three centre-backs in Hugo Campagnaro with a third forward in Higuain and introducing Fernando Gago into the midfield in place of Maxi.

In reverting to their standard 4-3-3 formation, Argentina became a much greater threat, and Messi set up Aguero for one chance, only for the Manchester City striker to fire over.

Messi had been watched closely by Besic all evening but his moment came with the midway point in the second half approaching, when he finally got his second World Cup goal, almost exactly eight years after coming off the bench to net in a 6-0 defeat of Serbia and Montenegro in Germany.

It was the type of goal he has scored so many times before with Barcelona, but doing it on this stage made it that little bit more special.

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