KAZAN, Russia (AP) – Portugal is hoping a red-hot Cristiano Ronaldo can continue his sparkling form and help the European champions show that their victory at Euro 2016 wasn’t a fluke.
With Ronaldo looking at the peak of his game, Portugal trained for the first time in Russia on Thursday ahead of its Confederations Cup debut against Mexico on Sunday.
Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year, is enjoying one of his greatest career runs, having scored 18 goals in his last 11 matches, including two in Real Madrid’s 4-1 win over Juventus in the Champions League final. He also scored important goals in the decisive stages of the Spanish league, a competition Madrid won this season for the first time in five years.
“Obviously there are no words to describe what Cristiano means to our country, with everything that he has achieved,” Portugal defender Bruno Alves said Thursday. “He is an idol even for the players, and we hope that he can help Portugal with some of his goals and victories.”
Ronaldo’s recent performances have left him in a strong position to catch up with Lionel Messi with a fifth world player of the year award. He would almost certainly secure the prize if he can help Portugal win the Confederations Cup, the main warm-up event for next year’s World Cup.
Ronaldo has 11 goals in five games with the national team this season, including two in Portugal’s 3-0 win at Latvia in European World Cup qualifying last week, the team’s last match before the Confederations Cup.
“Cristiano is a great player and we know that he makes a difference,” Mexico forward Hirving Lozano said. “But soccer is a team sport and I think that we have a great squad to confront him.”
Ronaldo will be playing his first match since being accused of defrauding Spain’s tax office of 14.7 million euros ($16.5 million) in unpaid taxes. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Portugal arrived in Russia as one of the title favorites, and also with a unique chance to show that last year’s European triumph didn’t come by accident.
“Portugal always shows ambition in every competition that it plays,” Alves said. “Now we have to show on the pitch why we are being considered favorites. We have already shown our strength in the past, and we want to do it again. We want to show that we are able to win more tournaments.”
Portugal is making its first appearance in the Confederations Cup, the eight-nation competition played by continental champions plus host Russia and World Cup winner Germany. The other teams are New Zealand, Cameroon, Chile, Australia and Mexico.
Portugal, which made it to the tournament after beating host France in the Euro 2016 final, is in Group A along with Russia, New Zealand and Mexico.
Portugal won 2-1 the only time it faced Mexico in an official match, in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Portugal won 1-0 in a friendly in 2014.
“Mexico has shown that it is a very good team, always playing attacking football,” Alves said. “It is an aggressive team, pressing you all the time, but I think that we have enough quality to win this game.”
Cedric Soares and Pepe, who had been practicing separately because they were not fully fit, joined the rest of Portugal’s group in Thursday’s session at Rubin Kazan’s training grounds.
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