Ronaldo's dragging Portugal to a peak as Queiroz sacking proves turning point
21:30 GMT, 22 June 2012
During his two spells as assistant manager at Manchester United, Carlos Queiroz was a popular figure in the North West. The charming man Sir Alex Ferguson plucked out of nowhere to help him after the 2002 World Cup was the approachable face of the Old Trafford coaching staff.
How remarkable, then, that it is Queiroz's departure as coach of the Portuguese national team that is now viewed as the pivotal moment in the country's transition from under-achievers to European Championship semi-finalists here in Poland and the Ukraine.
Reason to believe: 'Our spirit is great,'
Now in charge of Iran, Queiroz left his post with Portugal in September 2010. Many of the players who worked under him during the South Africa World Cup two months earlier were astounded he wasn't dismissed sooner. Nevertheless, his sacking after a defeat and a draw at the start of Euro 2012 qualification clearly came just in time.
Under his replacement Paulo Bento, Portugal have grown, and in beating the Czech Republic in Warsaw on Thursday, had the look of a team capable of upsetting Spain or France in next Wednesday's Donetsk semi-final.
Sacked: Queiroz was dismissed at the beginning of Portugal's qualifying campaign
Winning goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo said: 'The most important thing is the ambition and spirit in our squad. It is different to before.
'Our path has been very difficult but we are here now and we have gone through one more stage. That didn't always look possible.'
Portugal's players have closed the chapter on the Queiroz years now, at least in public. Few speak about it to the media but it is understood the sense of loathing within the squad was quite unprecedented during his time in charge.
Here in eastern Europe, they do look more settled. Without Ronaldo they perhaps would be quite ordinary but the Real Madrid star has found some sparkling form and revels in the captaincy.
Meanwhile, the absence in the squad of the divisive Ricardo Carvalho also appears to have helped.
Net gains: Ronaldo scored the only goal of the game against the Czechs
'Being the top scorer here is not important to me,' added Ronaldo, who now has three goals.
'I don't even want to think about it. I just want to go as far as possible at the Euros. To me it doesn't matter whether it's Spain or France. The team are ready.
'It doesn't matter what I do here, it's the team. But I felt a big joy against Czech Republic. We were worthy winners, we played better than them.'
More to come: Nani impressed against Holland but was fitful in Portugal's quarter final
If Portugal are to progress further, few will begrudge them. They have shown some spirit, losing their first group game against Germany, scoring late to beat Denmark and then coming from behind to defeat Holland in a decisive final match.
In Ronaldo, former United club-mate Nani, Chelsea's Raul Meireles and the talented Joao Moutinho, Portugal have some gifted technicians, even if they do lack a natural centre forward.
Playing primarily on the left side, Ronaldo is essentially required to double up as a striker, such are the deficiencies of Helder Postiga – who is now injured – and Hugo Almeida.
Ronaldo's winning goal on Thursday illustrated that point as he darted in from his wing to punch a header past Petr Cech. Postiga himself said afterwards: 'When you have one top player like Cristiano it's more easy because he's number one in the world.
'He deserves congratulations because he had such a great game and a great tournament.'
Man in charge: Paulo Bento took over from Queiroz
With Postiga confirmed as being out of the semi-final with a hamstring injury yesterday, Almeida is expected to start on Wednesday.
Another option is young Benfica forward Nelson Oliveira but what is clear is that the likes of Ronaldo and Nani are going to have to produce big performances.
Nani played well in the defeat of Holland but was fitful against the Czechs. It was ever thus with a player who has now been told by United that contract talks will begin when he returns home from these championships.
He said: 'Maybe we can play England in the final – you never know. Anything is possible.
'But first of all we have to win our next game before we start to think about that. We don't mind who we play, it doesn't matter.
'The quarter-final was a fantastic night for us. The team are happy because the performance on the pitch was great.'
As for coach Bento himself, he is not a man prone to expansive gestures. The other day in Warsaw he was serenaded by the Portuguese press to mark his 43rd birthday but responded only by ticking them off about their coverage. He has none of Queiroz's ready charm but – until now at least – his results are better.
In Portugal, a demanding public is beginning to become optimistic.