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D-day for Ronaldo's Portugal in Euro 2012's 'Group of Death'

By Pedro Pinto and Gary Morley, CNN
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Sat June 16, 2012
Star player Cristiano Ronaldo is under pressure to lead Portugal into the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, with the Real Madrid forward having struggled to make the impact that was expected of him. Star player Cristiano Ronaldo is under pressure to lead Portugal into the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, with the Real Madrid forward having struggled to make the impact that was expected of him.
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Ronaldo's remit
Portugal's progress
D-day for Dutch
'Oranje' despair
German joy
Denmark's destiny?
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Final games in Euro 2012's "Group of Death" to be played in Ukraine on Sunday
  • Bottom team Netherlands face Portugal, needing to win by two goals to go through
  • Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal will reach quarterfinals with win, or maybe even a draw
  • Leaders Germany need just a point against Denmark, who can also progress to last eight

(CNN) -- Cristiano Ronaldo has the weight of a nation on his shoulders at Euro 2012, but the world's most expensive footballer is struggling to make an impact for Portugal.

Mocked by opposing fans after uncharacteristic misses against Denmark, the man who seemingly scores at will for Real Madrid is under extreme pressure ahead of Sunday's final Group B clash with the Netherlands.

The Dutch need to win by two goals to have any chance of reaching the quarterfinals, while 2004 runners-up Portugal could go through with a draw if Denmark cannot beat leaders Germany.

Ronaldo scored 46 goals in 38 league games as Real wrested the Spanish title off Barcelona last season, but Denmark fans chanted the name of Lionel Messi -- his rival for the title of world's best player -- in Portugal's last-gasp 3-2 victory on Wednesday.

However, former Portugal goalkeeper Vitor Baia told CNN that Ronaldo does not deserve the criticism he has received for his performances so far.

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Spain's soccer team celebrates with the Euro 2012 trophy on a double-decker bus during the victory parade in Madrid on Monday. Spain defeated Italy 4-0 in the final match on Sunday. Euro 2012, bringing together 16 of Europe's best national soccer teams, began June 8 in Poland and Ukraine. Look back at the action and atmosphere. Spain's soccer team celebrates with the Euro 2012 trophy on a double-decker bus during the victory parade in Madrid on Monday. Spain defeated Italy 4-0 in the final match on Sunday. Euro 2012, bringing together 16 of Europe's best national soccer teams, began June 8 in Poland and Ukraine. Look back at the action and atmosphere.
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"Cristiano is a fantastic player and is our captain and is doing very well," said Baia, who won 80 international caps and played at two European Championships and the 2002 World Cup.

"He's working, he's helping the team. Okay we are always expecting Ronaldo can win the game alone, but sometimes it is not possible.

"Now he's playing for the team, that is very important. When he cannot make the difference, he helps the team. That's what a captain has to do in this situation."

Portugal's defensive approach under coach Paulo Bento has mystified football pundits and fans alike, especially given the glimpses of the team's undoubted attacking skills in the final 20 minutes of the 1-0 defeat by Germany.

Baia expects similar tactics in the match in Kharkiv.

"We will play on the counterattack because it's the way we played in the other two matches. It will be the same because Holland has to win this game," he said.

"We did not start so well against Germany with a defensive strategy -- we have so much quality in our players to play in that way. But in the second game, we played better -- not the way we like it.

"We played better until 2-2 and then we suffered a little bit, but at the end we scored a third goal and now we are in a fantastic position to go to the next round because this is a very tough group, it's the most difficult group in this European Cup."

It has been called the "Group of Death" -- and the Netherlands are fighting for their lives after two successive defeats.

The 2010 World Cup finalists suffered a shock 1-0 loss to Denmark, and then were dominated in the first half by Germany before losing 2-1 as star names such as Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wes Sneijder failed to combine their undoubted talents.

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Former international Boudewijn Zenden remains hopeful that the 1988 champions can continue their record of reaching the last eight in their last six appearances at the tournament.

"Two-nil to Holland -- I'm still confident! It's going to be really, really tough. Portugal needs to win, Holland needs to win ... Denmark needs to win -- it's still a group where anything can happen," he said.

Zenden, who helped the "Oranje" reach the semifinals of Euro 2000 and 2004, said coach Bert van Marwijk might make changes against Portugal.

"The manager hasn't changed much over the last years, he always tries to play with two central holding midfielders and let the other four play in front of them and go forward," the 35-year-old said.

"There's been a lot of talk in the press that maybe he should play just one holding midfielder and put maybe Rafael van der Vaart back in the team to get some more drive forward.

"The big shout is for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who is the top goalscorer in the Bundesliga, for him to play up front and maybe find a different position for Van Persie, so maybe that's what will happen.

"He made a big point by substituting (captain and the coach's son-in-law) Mark van Bommel the other day at halftime. Ibrahim Afellay got dragged off, it's all signals that there has to be a change when playing against Portugal."

Van Marwijk has been in charge since 2008, and last year extended his contract until Euro 2016, but Zenden suggested that the 60-year-old might not last that long if the Dutch crash out early.

"The Dutch FA came out and said even if they don't qualify he'll keep his job. We know that Van Marwijk signed a new deal with a clause in there (saying) when he finds a top team in Europe he can leave," Zenden said.

"Well maybe he put that in for himself. Maybe if it doesn't work out at the Euros, with mutual consent you can say, 'Well, if you find a nice club you can do it this way,' and he might say goodbye."

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