Less than a year after Ronaldo career seemed in crisis, Portugal on the brink of reaching Euro 2024

Tue, Oct 10, 2023
Soccer News (AP)

Less than a year after Ronaldo career seemed in crisis, Portugal on the brink of reaching Euro 2024

MANCHESTER, England (AP) - Cristiano Ronaldo is on the brink of leading Portugal to another major soccer tournament less than a year after his international career appeared to be over.

It wasn't clear what the future held for the five-time Champions League winner when he walked away from Manchester United last November and was then dropped by his country as it made an early exit from the World Cup in Qatar.

His move to Saudi Arabia wasn't exactly a guarantee of success, but Ronaldo has proven he is far from done. On Friday, Portugal can secure its place at next year's European Championship in Germany.

It will be a personal triumph for Ronaldo, who insisted his career wasn't over after leaving European club soccer behind to join Al-Nassr last December.

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Not only has he been the catalyst for a slew of soccer's biggest names, such as Neymar and Karim Benzema, following him to the Saudi league, but he has helped Portugal to its best-ever performance in a European qualifying campaign with six wins from six matches in Group J.

A win against Slovakia on Friday will guarantee qualification and, if Ronaldo is selected, the chance for him to repeat his 2016 triumph with Portugal at the tournament.

Things have also turned around for Portugal coach Roberto Martinez, who left his post as Belgium coach at the end of his contract after failing to advance from the group stage at the World Cup. He had been criticized for failing to make the most of the country's golden generation that included Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, despite leading the team to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and to No. 1 in the FIFA rankings - a position it held for four years.

At the time of his appointment, one newspaper poll in Portugal claimed 75% of fans who responded were against it. But Martinez is on the verge of getting another chance to deliver the major trophy he never managed to win for Belgium.

BRILLIANT BELLINGHAM

Jude Bellingham continued his sensational start with Real Madrid on Saturday by equaling Ronaldo's record of 10 goals in his first 10 games. That is the best scoring start for Madrid since Ronaldo achieved that feat when he joined from Manchester United in 2009.

Bellingham has emerged as one of the brightest stars in Europe since the departures of Ronaldo and Neymar for Saudi Arabia and Lionel Messi for Inter Miami. He is now a key figure in the England team, which plays Italy at Wembley Stadium next week in a repeat of the Euro 2020 final.

MBAPPE MISSION

Things haven't gone too well for Kylian Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain in what could be his final season at the club, but at least he's close to qualifying for Euro 2024 with France.

PSG is in third place in the French league and last week lost to Newcastle in the Champions League.

Mbappe, who has said he will leave the club when his contract expires, was initially made to train away from the first team as a result, but was then recalled. That led to renewed hope at PSG that he would extend his contract, but as it stands he will be a free agent at the end of the season.

PSG's loss to Newcastle also raises questions about its credentials to finally win the Champions League - European club soccer's biggest trophy and one that Mbappe craves. The France forward has won several domestic honors with the club.

With the national team, Mbappe won the World Cup in 2018 and finished runner-up last year. At least qualification for next year's European Championship would give him the opportunity to win another major prize for his country.

SPAIN'S WONDERKID

Barcelona teenager Lamine Yamal returns to Spain's national team with yet another record to his name after becoming the youngest player to score in the Spanish league at the weekend.

The 16-year-old forward scored in Barcelona's 2-2 draw at Granada on Sunday to surpass Malaga player Fabrice Olinga, who was a few days older when he scored against Celta Vigo in 2012. Yamal was already the youngest player to debut in the league, and the youngest to start in the Champions League.

Yamal made his debut with Spain last month, and became the youngest scorer in a European Championship qualifier. He was also the youngest player to appear for Spain, and the hype surrounding the youngster has only increased since his first match with La Roja.

Yamal has gained a more prominent role with Barcelona, and the same is expected to happen with the national team. Spain plays against Scotland on Thursday and is at Norway on Sunday. Scotland leads Group A with 15 points, six more than Spain, which has a game in hand. Norway is third with seven points.

Scotland can qualify for Euro 2024 by beating Spain. Scott McTominay warmed up for that match with two late goals for Manchester United on Saturday.

The midfielder is a surprise name toward the top of the scoring charts in European qualifying, with only Romelu Lukaku ahead of him with eight goals. McTominay is in second place along with United teammate Rasmus Hojlund with six goals so far.

ITALY'S REVIVAL

Napoli's loss appears to be Italy's gain. Luciano Spalletti left Napoli at the end of last season after leading the club to its first Serie A title in 33 years and was later appointed Italy coach following Roberto Mancini's resignation. While Napoli is currently looking like a shadow of the team that won the league title, Spalletti seems to have Italy playing like his former team.

His first match in charge was a drab 1-1 draw at North Macedonia but the attacking flair that characterized Napoli last season was evident in Italy's 2-1 win over Ukraine that got the Azzurri's Euro 2024 qualifying campaign back on track.

Italy moved into second place in Group C, above Ukraine on head-to-head record - with the return match scheduled for Nov. 20. The Azzurri have played a game less than Ukraine and England, which leads the group by six points. Italy hosts Malta on Saturday before playing England at Wembley three days later.

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AP Sports Writers Tales Azzoni in Madrid and Daniella Matar in Milan contributed to this report.

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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