Soccer

Cristiano Ronaldo is up there with all-time greats: Ireland boss Stephen Kenny

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo scores his side's second goal during the Champions League tie against Atalanta 
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo scores his side's second goal during the Champions League tie against Atalanta 

AT the end of yesterday’s press conference in Abbotstown where Stephen Kenny announced his 26-man squad for Ireland’s final two World Cup qualifiers against Portugal and Luxembourg, you dangle the question of just how good is Cristiano Ronaldo and where the Portuguese superstar ranks in the pantheon of greats.

For last number of weeks, the 36-year-old’s late goals have kept Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a job.

The legendary striker popped up with a Champions League winner against Atalanta at Old Trafford last week and he grabbed two fantastic goals to give United a share of the spoils against the Serie A side in Bergamo on Tuesday night.

On the international stage, Ronaldo bagged two late goals that sunk Ireland’s faint World Cup qualification hopes back in September and will be in Dublin next Thursday night for the return match in a bid to edge Portugal closer to the Qatar finals next summer.

With a stiff in-take of breath, Kenny indulged the question but didn’t know where to rank him in the all-time greats list.

“Right, that’s such a difficult question,” said the Ireland boss.

“It’s different eras, the game evolves all the time. For me, in the last three years, football has evolved so much tactically, it is constantly evolving. But someone like Ronaldo transcends a few decades which is incredible.

“Where he ranks compared to so many greats through different eras, you can’t really say one is better than the other.

“It’s very difficult to say who is better: Maradona, Messi, Ronaldo. They’re all great players. It’s a fun game to rank them.

“There were great players before Pele. And the game that [Diego] Maradona had to endure, before the law changes on yellow cards and red cards. What he had to endure - the physical brutality - the changes in laws were based on how he was treated.

“Messi and Ronaldo have hugely benefited from that. They are protected now in a way that any sort of tackle that is dangerous is an automatic red card.”

Kenny has always possessed a deep knowledge and passion for great players of the past and the subtle evolution of the game even since he became senior international manager.

The Dubliner, who just celebrated his 50th birthday, admits he can’t be 100 per cent sure where Ronaldo will line out against his Ireland team in front of a sell-out crowd in six days' time but will nevertheless be a goal threat throughout the game.

Ronaldo, who has won league titles in England, Italy and Spain, has notched a record-breaking 115 goals in 182 international appearances.

Kenny added: “Ronaldo has evolved from being a winger at Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United as a right winger, then on the left to being a prolific centre forward.

“Some of his time at Real Madrid, he played off the left, as a second striker. Even we can’t be certain where he’ll play against us because he played centre forward in the European Championships but obviously the second half against us [in Faro] he played narrow on the left with Andre Silva playing centre forward.

“Since Andre Silva came in the team as a centre forward, they’ve scored a lot of goals recently so he may not play as a centre forward against us. He may play narrow on the left where he can be difficult to pick up.

“Most wingers never have the capacity to head the ball from crosses the way he did to score two goals against us. He’s a different threat now. Ronaldo at 36 is a different threat to the one at 26; it’s different threat but he still has the capacity to score goals.”

Portugal coach Fernando Santos has an embarrassment of attacking riches in his squad that travels to the Irish capital next week, including Bernardo Silva, Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Dalot, Joao Cancelo and Liverpools Diogo Jota.

Portugal squad:

Keepers: Anthony Lopes (Olympique Lyon), Diogo Costa (FC Porto), Rui Patrício (AS Roma).

Defenders: João Cancelo, Rúben Dias (Manchester City), Nélson Semedo (Wolves), Diogo Dalot (Manchester United), Nuno Mendes (PSG), José Fonte (Lille OSC), Pepe (FC Porto).

Midfielders: Danilo Pereira (PSG), João Palhinha, Matheus Nunes (Sporting CP), William Carvalho (Real Betis), João Moutinho, Rúben Neves (Wolves), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), João Mário (SL Benfica), Renato Sanches (Lille OSC)

Forwards: Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Rafa Silva (SL Benfica), João Félix (Atlético Madrid), André Silva (RB Leipzig), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), Diogo Jota (Liverpool FC), Rafael Leão (AC Milan).