MANAUS, Brazil – The United States has been warned to watch out for an injured but highly motivated Cristiano Ronaldo on Sunday, as the world's best player seeks to silence his doubters.
Ronaldo's teammate Raul Meireles believes the urgency of the clash – a defeat would eliminate Portugal and a draw would leave it on the brink of elimination – will bring out the best in the Real Madrid superstar, just like it has in the past.
"We know Cristiano, we don't expect anything else," Meireles said, when asked if he felt Ronaldo would shine at the Arena da Amazonia. "Cristiano is the best player in the world and he is always competing to be the best player. This group has gone through difficult times before and I hope this will be another occasion when we will be successful."
Meireles was making specific reference to two occasions when Ronaldo has stepped up under pressure to carry his national team on his shoulders. The first came in the 2012 European championship, when he scored twice against the Netherlands in the final group game to secure a comeback victory and a place in the quarterfinals.
The second, even more dramatic instance, came last year in the World Cup playoff that Portugal had to survive just to qualify for this tournament. After Zlatan Ibrahimovic sparked a Sweden comeback that left the Scandinavian nation needing just one more goal to progress, Ronaldo put the result beyond doubt with a pair of spectacular late strikes to ensure he would take part again in soccer's biggest show.
After Portugal was thumped 4-0 by Germany in its opening Group G clash there is no more room for maneuver and a big performance is needed from the man his country relies on like no other.
Even though Ronaldo has been struggling with a knee injury he is still dangerous and the only people who truly know the extent of his knee trouble are those within the Portugal camp.
The Americans can expect an all-out attacking bombardment, with Portugal not only needing a win but also keen to improve its goal differential after a woeful start. An ominous sign for the U.S.? Four years ago, when Portugal played its second game after a shaky opener, it beat North Korea 7-0.
"We have to run the risks and we will run the risks," head coach Paulo Bento said. "We need to be sure of ourselves and control all situations in the game. We have to think we will win. I know we are in a difficult situation."
Mathematically speaking, a draw would not eliminate Portugal. However, Bento and his side would be loath to be left in a situation where a final game tie between Germany and the U.S. would be enough for both those teams to advance.
For the Americans, who now have the chance to take the lead in Group G after Germany and Ghana finished tied on Saturday, the task of stopping Ronaldo is critical. He prefers to operate on the left, where the job of controlling him would fall to Fabian Johnson. However, given the inroads Ghana's Christian Atsu was able to make when running at DaMarcus Beasley in game one then a switch to the opposite flank cannot be discounted.
In that instance, Klinsmann may turn to Jermaine Jones to stick close to Ronaldo and provide a strong physical presence to test out that shaky knee.
Ronaldo has been silent all week but make no mistake, he wants success here more than anything, with a triumphant run through a major international tournament being the only glaring omission on his career résumé.
The U.S. can expect him to be fired up and with words of reality from Bento ringing in his ears.
"This is the scenario we have ahead of us," Bento said. "If we draw, we practically pack our suitcase. It is not a scenario we are unaware of. It is not a situation we are unused to."
Right now, the U.S. is in solid shape and has had some things fall its way. But it needs to be wary of a wounded Portugal – and a global superstar with a point to prove.