Hughes ready for Ronaldo test
Aaron Hughes expects Cristiano Ronaldo to be at his world-beating best when Northern Ireland take on Portugal on Tuesday night.
- Related Content
The Real Madrid superstar is set to win his 100th cap in the World Cup qualifier at Porto's Dragao Stadium, and few would bet against him marking the occasion in style.
Northern Ireland, albeit weakened by withdrawals, leaked six goals in Holland in a summer friendly and Ronaldo will surely fancy his chances of getting on the scoresheet on his big day.
Fulham centre-half Hughes is one of the men charged with confounding expectations, but he cannot hide his admiration for a player who has scored 14 times in 11 club matches this season.
"I have played a handful of times against him but maybe he has gone another level since his days in the Premier League, and maybe he can go further," said Hughes.
"He has gone and become just as successful in Spain and maybe there's more to come from him.
"I don't think he has peaked, believe it or not. He is still going and appears to be getting better.
"Lionel Messi and Ronaldo are the two who stand out as the best two in the world."
Hughes is holding out minimal hope of an off-day for the rampaging forward, which could spell bad news for a Northern Ireland side who have taken just one point from their first two matches in Group F.
"He is one of those players who makes you feel as if he has been around forever and playing forever, so the fact he's reaching 100 caps already doesn't surprise me, even at 27," said Hughes, himself a veteran on 82 international appearances.
"He is more than worthy of that, but that - whether it is his 100th or his 10th - what makes players great like that is they play like that every time and rarely have an off-night.
"The best players play at that level every single night whether it is the first game of the season, a windy night in November or the Champions League, it is just their way.
"It's not just technical ability, it is the attitude to reproduce that every single night. You look at sport in general, the likes of Michael Jordan, they are the best."
Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll, now firmly re-established as the number one following Lee Camp's self-imposed exile for personal reasons, is another man who can expect a busy night.
The Olympiacos player was a team-mate of Ronaldo's at Manchester United when he first arrived in England, and he is expecting to come up against an even more complete player than the one he used to train with.
"I played with him at Manchester United for two years and he couldn't speak English when he arrived but neither could I!" said Carroll.
"He was very hard working when he came from Sporting Lisbon and I learned from him, with the shots he put against me in training.
"He has developed himself since as an all-round player and we know what he can do.
"He is physically so much harder and worked a lot in the gym and looked after himself on and off the pitch. He's a much stronger player in the last five years, you can see that."
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill faces a difficult job piecing together a side to stop Ronaldo, and his illustrious team-mates, having lost six players from his original squad.
Alex Bruce and Grant McCann were the latest to withdraw yesterday due to injury, leaving O'Neill light on the right side of defence and left midfield.