WITH his 14 years of international experience, there is little that will surprise Aaron Hughes.
The former Northern Ireland captain has prepared to take on world-beating sides before and says Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier against Portugal is going to be among the most difficult he’s ever played in.
Moreover, trying to suffocate the footballing genius of Cristiano Ronaldo will prove one of his biggest challenges.
Despite having already defended back lines against the Real Madrid superstar, Hughes cannot hide his admiration for the man who has scored 14 times in 11 club matches, as well as already having chalked up the odd hat-trick or two 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,” the Fulham centre-back said.
“He has gone and become just as successful in Spain and maybe there’s more to come from him.
“I don’t believe 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.
“He is one of those players who makes you feel as if he has been around forever and playing forever, so 100 caps already doesn’t surprise me even at 27. He would be more than worthy of that.”
When asked if he believed any of Northern Ireland’s young crop could go on to match his record, Hughes, who is set to collect his 83rd cap on Tuesday, said discovering players who can even come close to hitting Ronaldo’s quality for club and country is a rarity.
“I don’t think you can even compare him to younger players coming through.
“To get to that is more about your career and looking after yourself over a period of time and avoiding injuries, plus having the manager picking you all the time.
“It’s about keeping your form good and to get to it is an achievement itself but for several other reasons, not many players are at that level no matter which country you look at.
“Of course we hope for a player to come through with the ability and the attitude and they are not things you can teach, they are natural qualities and come with a natural drive to want to be the best.
“In my experience I have seen a lot of players who have not even the best technical ability but have drive and those who have unbelievable ability but have disappeared off the face off the earth, so when you have the best of both worlds, you must have the right combination. Everyone hopes for someone like that to come through.
“But no matter whether it is his 100th or 10th, that is what makes players great like that. 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 first game of season, a windy night in November or the Champions League; it is their way.
“It is not just about technical ability, it is the attitude to reproduce that every single night and you look at sport in general, people like Michael Jordan in basketball – they are the best.”
Northern Ireland have picked up just one point from their first two qualifiers, recorded in a 1-1 draw against Luxembourg last month, which Hughes admits presented him and his team-mates with another obstacle to overcome – post-match blues.
With opposition so strong it could make or potentially break a comeback, Hughes is focused on rejuvenating the team’s World Cup campaign, at least in terms of confidence with a good performance.
“We were disappointed after Luxembourg, but that unfortunately happens and we had to come back from it.
“Portugal had the vast majority of the possession on Friday and we know how hard it is against the Russians. They ultimately still lost but it teaches opposition to be patient.
“We are going to have the same shape and the same discipline we had in Russia and just work for a better result.
“We can’t expect to have even half of the possession against Portugal but we do have a stinging counter attack.
“I guess they will want to win even more since they are disappointed with the loss and they will be looking to bounce back after the defat and they’ll think this is their opportunity to do that.”