Cristiano Ronaldo, wing commanders, and Czech Republic-Portugal: Thursday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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Two weeks ago Portugal looked like a good bet to finish last in Group B. Now they’re favorites to advance from Euro 2012’s quarterfinals. How did this happen? They walked into the Group of Death with most seeing them well behind Germany and the Netherlands. The quartet’s other team was Denmark, a nation that’s bested Portugal in the last two qualifying cycles. Now, they’re bonafide dark horses – as good a bet as any to win this, beyond Germany and Spain.

The biggest difference has been goals. Between their playoff win over Bosnia and Herzegonvina and the start of Euro 2012, the Seleccao scored one goal in 270 minutes. It wasn’t exactly a shock. Portugal’s established quite a reputation for squandering their attacking talent. Blame the lack of a number nine, or blame former coach Carlos Quieroz. No matter, the scoring drought extended into Group B play, where Portugal was shut out by Germany in their opening match.

Then came a relative explosion. Three goals against Denmark served as revenge. Wrapping up group play, Portugal scored twice against the Netherlands, both goals coming from their dormant giant: Cristiano Ronaldo. If he finally starts bringing his club-world quality to international soccer, Portugal may be more than mere dark horses.

Their Thursday opponents, the Czech Republic, can do for some awakenings of their own. While people debate whether Milan Baros should persist as the team’s starting striker, the leading scorer at Euro 2004 has gone silent. He went the competition’s first 250 minutes without registering a shot on goal. Suffice to say, he remains scoreless.

Combined with the health concerns surrounding captain Tomas Rosicky, and the Czechs may be left relying on their wingers to carry them. To this point, that’s where all their firepower’s come from, with left wing Vaclav Pilar and opposite Petr Jiracek getting help from right back Theodor Gebre Selassie. With Tomas Hubschmann holding down the middle, it’s been enough, albeit against a weak group.

The easy ride stops at 2:45 p.m. Eastern as Euro 2012 starts its quarterfinal round. Here’s your playlist:

1. New pattern

A howler in each of the Czech Republic’s first two games had goalkeeper Petr Cech looking more like his 2008 self than the man who helped carry Chelsea to the Champions League title. Against Poland, however, he made it 90 minutes without an issue, and while that was mostly because of the control the Czechs exerted over the match’s final 60 minutes, results are results. The scoresheet alone really doesn’t provide much context.

On Thursday, Cech’s going to be tested far more often. Cristiano Ronaldo is hitting a run of form, and if that doesn’t translate into questions for Cech, it’s going to at least force some corners. On the other side, Nani has been one of the tournament’s best wingers. His crossing will test Cech’s decision making.

After Robert Lewandowski was taken out of Saturday’s game, Poland didn’t have much to offer. Portugal won’t be so easily dissuaded.

2. Wide view

Portugal’s wingers can cause nightmares, but given how the Czech Republic’s threatened from wide, Paulo Bento and his staff might have had a moment’s pause before falling asleep on Wednesday. Vaclav Pilar could still prove the tournament’s breakout player. Petr Jiracek’s make an impact on each of the two matches he’s started on the right. Theodor Gebre Selassie’s been the competition’s biggest threat from the back.

Bento, however, shouldn’t lose any sleep over the problem. Fullbacks Fabio Coentrao (left) and Joao Periera (right) have given all-tournament performances, and for as good as Nani has been going forward, he has also exhibited years of work drilled into him by Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. While Gebre Selassie is set to start on Cristiano Ronaldo’s side, there’s no reason Portugal’s wingers can’t be flipped. Ronaldo has shown an aversion to starting as a nine, but for one game, he should be willing to move to his less-favored right wing.

3. Remember Holland

Portugal may slowly be leaving the Caros Quieroz era behind, but in their decisive group match against the Netherlands, they reverted to their shell. It was only after the Netherlands took the lead that Portugal woke up. From there forward, they controlled the match. Who would have known the Dutch can’t defend? (Answer: Everybody except Portugal, seemingly.)

Will Bento learn from the Holland match? There’s no reason for them to come out in their shell except reflexive conservatism. Against the Czech Republic, they can do as they did against Germany and Holland, start their midfield deep, and hope the Czechs expose themselves like they did against Russia. Or, they can control the match from the opening kickoff like the better team they are.

4. Time for answers

It seems Michal Bilek has been putting off his team’s attacking issues. I say “seems” because he doesn’t have a lot of options. If Tomas Necid, their 22-year-old forward protege, isn’t going to be used, there aren’t many alternatives to Milan Baros. There were fitness issues surrounding Necid, but if he isn’t healthy, why is he in the squad?

Baros isn’t the only issue. Tomas Rosicky’s recovering from an Achilles injury that kept him out of the Poland match. That’s one problem. Another is his productivity. Rosicky failed to make an impact in the two games he’s played. It might be best to give Daniel Kolar a second start and leave Rosicky as an as-needed option.

Regardless, Bilek can’t wait any longer. Portugal’s the best team the Czechs have faced since opening against Russia, a game they lost 4-1. He either addresses the attack or leaves the tournament with some “what ifs”.
ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Ballack acknowledges difficult decision ahead for John Terry

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For the better part of 19 years John Terry has been a staple of Chelsea’s backline.

[ WATCH: Zaha nets first international goal for Ivory Coast ]

With his future at Stamford Bridge becoming more and more in doubt though, it appears it’s time for the 36-year-old to move on from his longtime club, and that’s a decision that another former Chelsea player doesn’t envy.

[ MORE: Everton’s Coleman breaks leg on Ireland duty ]

Ex-Blues midfielder Michael Ballack knows that Terry has options, whether it be in Major League Soccer, the Chinese Super League or even with another Premier League club, but the German says it’s difficult because of what the centerback has meant to Chelsea.

“He is a player with that history and charisma,” Ballack, who spent four years with Chelsea during his playing days, told Sky Sports. “He’s such a Chelsea boy and they love him there.

“I know what it means if your career comes to an end and you’re getting older. You don’t know whether you extend your contract, play for another club or go abroad to America.

“I’m sure he has some options but if you think long-term, you have to feel comfortable with the decision.

For the first time in years, Terry has failed to establish himself as a first-team regular largely due to Antonio Conte‘s three-back system. The 36-year-old has appeared in just five PL matches this campaign, while making 10 appearances overall for the Blues, who currently sit atop England’s top flight and are in position to go for the double with the FA Cup semifinals lurking.

Terry himself has acknowledged that his career is nearing its end, but knowing the competitive drive that has made the Englishman great throughout his almost 20-year career, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll just give up his playing days without a fight.

Gabriel Jesus confident he’ll return for Man City this season

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Gabriel Jesus bursted onto the Manchester City scene upon arrival, but an injury back in February has left the talented Brazilian sidelined ever since.

[ MORE: Everton loses Coleman to leg break on Ireland duty ]

The lively attacker suffered a broken metatarsal last month against Bournemouth, which required surgery, but the 19-year-old remains confident that he’ll be able to feature again this season for the Citizens.

“I don’t know, I have no return prediction,” Jesus told SporTV. “But I hope I can still play some games this season.”

Initial thoughts were that Jesus would miss around three months, all but ending his first Premier League season. Now, Jesus is hoping that he’ll be able to pick up where he left off prior to the devastating injury.

“It’s good,” Jesus said on his road to recovery. “Thank God, the effort, not just mine, but from all the physiotherapists in Manchester, doctors and everyone. It was not easy for me.

“It’s my first injury. Not muscle injury, but it’s the first time something happens that leaves me out of games. So it was not easy.

“But I saw that, of course, no one wants this to happen, but it could be worse. So we operated soon, I decided to operate and give it time.”

In just his first four matches with Pep Guardiola‘s side, the young Brazilian netted three goals and even dethroned Sergio Aguero in the starting lineup.

CONCACAF chief Montagliani seeks World Cup entry for all co-hosts

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A joint-bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup is looking more and more possible, and CONCACAF chief Victor Montagliani believes that if that does happen then all co-hosts should be granted a spot in the tournament.

[ MORE: Making sense of USMNT’s emphatic win over Honduras ]

With FIFA president Gianni Infantino looking to finalize World Cup expansion plans from 32 to 48 teams over the coming weeks, it seems as though Montagliani’s hopes could become a reality for CONCACAF and other regions planning on creating multi-nation bids.

“I don’t think we should be dictating how a confederation allocates their slots from a hosting standpoint. That’s up to them,” Montagliani said.

FIFA will conduct its next meeting on Thursday when Infantino and all six confederation presidents meet in Zurich, Switzerland to decide on World Cup expansion, which Infantino has been adamant about since taking the reigns of soccer’s governing body.

2026 could play an important role for the United States, as it is seen as a critical piece in a joint-bid with Mexico and Canada to host the World Cup.

Additionally, Montagliani has hopes of making a combined Copa America with North and South America a permanent fixture after recently holding discussions with South America’s FIFA vice president Alejandro Dominguez.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Friday night’s massive USMNT victory ]

However, one area that would be left uncertain is the future of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which is currently held every two years.

“If that is the case and we get that done, then we have to have a serious look — is it really tenable to have a Gold Cup?” said Montagliani, whose FIFA stakeholders panel faces tough talks on adding and subtracting dates when clubs must release players on international dates.

“Do we really need it [the Gold Cup]?” he suggested. “Is it just clogging the calendar for the players?”

Lukaku coy on Everton future, says “decision has already been made”

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Romelu Lukaku has made it no secret that he hopes to play Champions League football, and reality may be setting in that the opportunity to do so won’t come at Everton.

[ MORE: Everton loses Coleman to leg break during Ireland match ]

While the Belgium international hasn’t dealt his hand in regards to his future at Goodison Park, it seems as though the Toffees could be losing out on keeping their star striker.

[ MORE: UEFA qualifying roundup — Wales in trouble, Buffon hits 1000 ]

Last month, agent Mino Raiola claimed that Lukaku’s deal with the English side was 99.9 percent complete, however, the 23-year-old has still yet to ink a new contract.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s UEFA World Cup qualifier against Greece, Lukaku says that his future plans are already made up.

“The decision has already been made so I can’t talk about that,” Lukaku said of his future at Everton.

The former Anderlecht standout has had nothing but success since joining Everton, first on loan and then making a permanent transfer from Chelsea in 2014. Over the combined stints, Lukaku has bagged 83 goals in all competitions for the Toffees, but the young attacker says there’s nothing wrong with having “ambition.”

“There is nothing wrong with ambition. You have to embrace it and where you are as a footballer,” Lukaku said. “I’ve made a long way until now but the road is still long and I know I have to improve and get better. I want to help Everton as much as I can, as well as the national team. I think a lot of stuff can be achieved.

“Sometimes people will mistake things that I say but it’s just ambition that I have; I want to win titles and trophies and I don’t think people should take that as arrogance — people should embrace it.

“This is what footballers need to achieve if they want to become the best, and I think young kids need to learn that too.”