Is Cristiano Ronaldo’s unquestioned starting role really Portugal’s best route to success?

<span>Tearful <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Cristiano Ronaldo;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Cristiano Ronaldo</a> is comforted by teammate <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Diogo Dalot;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Diogo Dalot</a> during the break before extra time against Slovenia at the Frankfurt Arena.</span><span>Photograph: Ralf Ibing/firo sportphoto/Getty Images</span>

It was the penultimate question of a 15-minute press conference but one that had everybody nodding in agreement, internally at least. At almost 1am local time in a bunker inside the Frankfurt Arena, Roberto Martínez leaned forward into the microphone and reached for a virtual shield to steel himself.

“Do you feel your game gets too predictable with all those crosses inside the box towards Ronaldo?” came the question and regardless of what the Portugal manager may say, the answer is a resounding big, fat yes. Or as the Portugal supporters mimicking Ronaldo outside the ground before kick-off might say: “Siuuu!”

Related: Cristiano Ronaldo says he was ‘at rock bottom’ during tearful Portugal triumph

Make no mistake, Ronaldo is insanely, infinitely watchable, box office in good and bad. There were the tears that streamed down his perfectly chiselled face during the extra-time interval against Slovenia as he began to fully digest the potential ramifications of Jan Oblak’s magnificent left-hand penalty save.

There was the moment in the ninth minute when he juggled the ball under pressure from a touch-tight Petar Stojanovic, doing a series of keepy-uppies seemingly purely to entertain the crowd before pushing a pass into João Palhinha. There was a tidy backheel for Rafael Leão, one of those tasked with slinging in crosses for Ronaldo’s forehead. Ronaldo had five high-power shots, the majority unhinged, game-breaker free-kicks no matter the distance.

Ronaldo has little to show for 366 minutes of action. That he had fewer touches (38) than any other Portugal starting outfield player against Slovenia is no great surprise given his strange evolution into a kind of waxwork target man, but it is indicative of how isolated he was, stationed between the centre-halves, Jaka Bijol and Vanja Drkusic, who relished the assignment. He wasn’t dreadful but it was another of those kind of harmless performances.

The numbers are clearly gnawing at him. No player has had more shots than his 20 without a goal in Germany this summer and he is on his longest scoring drought in major tournaments: eight games dating back to the World Cup in Qatar, when he scored a penalty in the opener against Ghana. Martínez highlighted Ronaldo’s admirable if not freakish record of appearing in six European Championships but this was the first major tournament when he failed to score in the group stage.

Related: The Ronaldo show is unstoppable and reduces others to bit-part players | Jonathan Wilson

Portugal have had their Euros moments over the years, most notably winning the tournament in 2016 and Ricardo’s penalty shootout heroics against England in Lisbon in 2004. Ricardo, now the goalkeeper coach, ripped off his gloves to spook Darius Vassell and saved the England striker’s penalty with his bare hands before stepping up to the spot and leathering the ball past David James to clinch a 6-5 win on penalties and a place in the semi-finals. And now Ronaldo’s incredible meltdown and the subsequent joyful tears.

“I was at rock bottom when the team needed me most,” he said. “I was sad at first but now I’m happy. That’s what football is. Moments, inexplicable moments. Even the strongest people have their [bad] days.”

Ronaldo also confirmed this European Championship would be his last – no great shock given he will be 43 by the time Euro 2028 rolls around – but there are reports he will extend his stay in Saudi Arabia until 2026. In other words, there is a distinct possibility he has one more World Cup left in his legs. That in itself, physically, would be an extraordinary feat and the way he shrugged off his extra-time penalty miss to score the first spot-kick in the shootout spoke of his mental powers.

But regardless of Ronaldo’s phenomenal scoring record it is hard to believe the best route to success for Portugal is asking Leão, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Nuno Mendes, Vitinha, Nelson Semedo, Diogo Jota – the list goes on – to look to play in the big guy parked in the middle of the box, as if it is the only option.

A penny for the thoughts of Gonçalo Ramos, whose tournament has consisted of 24 minutes off the bench, or Francisco Conceição, who scored the winner against Czech Republic but reverted to his reserve role against Turkey a few days later. Ronaldo started Portugal’s final Group F game, a 2-0 loss to Georgia when he was booked for dissent before being taken off midway through the second half, despite the team having guaranteed top spot.

Ronaldo is an icon – fans even cheer and jeer his free-kicks in the warm-up – but there is an argument his presence is a distraction if not a hindrance. Still, there is no way Ronaldo does not start against France on Friday.

As for Martínez’s answer to that question, he was hardly going to concur, largely because he appears in thrall to Ronaldo. “No … predictable because we didn’t score?” Martínez said, with a smile. “We created chances; we didn’t take them but we never accepted defeat.

“I’ve seen many, many games where what happens is the team that is out of possession, holding on, they get to 90 minutes, then to extra time, you accept defeat, it’s not your day, you get emotional, you get a red card, you make a big mistake and then you don’t focus on the penalties. I am extremely proud that we are in the quarter-finals.”