Marseille (AFP) – The might of Poland’s Robert Lewandowski stands in Cristiano Ronaldo’s path to his first international title with Portugal in Euro 2016’s first quarter-final in Marseille on Thursday.
In the battle of two of Europe’s top strikers, Poland will be counting on Bayern Munich’s Lewandowski to find his scoring touch after four scoreless games in France to outgun Ronaldo.
The match starts four days of tense and historic encounters which will see Germany seeking a first win at a major tournament against Italy, Wales playing for British honour against Belgium and France facing giantkillers Iceland.
Neither Poland nor Portugal have ever won a World Cup or Euros, but they have a golden opportunity to make history thanks to both their firepower and landing on the soft side of the draw.
The winner will face Belgium or Wales in the semi-final, avoiding the favoured heavyweights.
Poland will certainly be on top in the stands of the 67,000 capacity Stade Velodrome for the 1900 GMT kick-off.
Marseille’s old port was awash with Polish fans, colours and songs, with barely a Portuguese shirt in sight.
A heavy police presence kept a watchful eye, but there was no repeat of the ugly scenes when English and Russia fans battled amid clouds of tear gas in Marseille on the competition’s opening weekend.
Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos said neither side should be confident. “There is no favourite, it is 50-50.”
Much of the focus will be on Ronaldo, a regular match-winner for Real Madrid who has never enjoyed tournament success with Portugal.
But the 31-year-old is just one goal away from more European history by matching French legend Michel Platini’s record mark of nine goals in the Euro finals. He is already the first player to score in four Euros.
Santos said the superstar can handle the expectations.
“It is a natural thing (that) some are mentioned more than others because they are amazing players. Ronaldo knows how to deal with that,” said Santos.
– Injury concerns –
Lewandowski got the most goals of any player in qualifying for the finals. But it is Poland’s solid defence that has carried them to the quarters by conceding just one goal, whilst Lewandowski and strike partner Arkadiusz Milik have misfired.
And Ajax striker Milik believes he can learn from Ronaldo.
“It will be special for me to play against him tomorrow, but of course I will try to focus on my team instead of looking up to him,” said Milik.
Portugal have fitness concerns over Raphael Guerreiro, Andre Gomes and Joao Moutinho, so 18-year-old Renato Sanches could start for the first time in the tournament.
Sanches showed why German giants Bayern Munich paid Benfica 35 million euros ($38 million) for his services as he came off the bench to win man-of-the-match in the last 16 victory against Croatia.
However, Santos said: “He only started working with us in March. He is still growing and it is up to me to analyse and decide if he can be useful for the team.”
The match is followed by Wales against Belgium in Lille on Friday. The stadium could be dominated by Belgian fans who are expected to flood across the nearby border for the day.
World champions Germany face the might of Italy’s experienced defence led by veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in Bordeaux on Saturday, hoping to end a winless eight-match run against their opponents in major tournaments.
Surprise package Iceland are looking to cause another huge upset when they take on hosts France at the Stade de France on Sunday after condemning England to an early exit in the last 16.
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