THIS has been a demanding season for Paulo Bernardo for a variety of different reasons.

The Portuguese midfielder, who joined Celtic on a season-long loan from Benfica in his homeland back in September, took some time to force his way into the Scottish champions’ first team.

Manager Brendan Rodgers only gave him an extended run when his club mates Reo Hatate and Tomoki Iwata were ruled out of action by injuries.

Since establishing himself as a regular starter, the 22-year-old has had to deal with intense media criticism of the Parkhead club’s performances as well as occasional unrest in the stands.

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Yet, Bernardo is not, just like his legendary countryman Cristiano Ronaldo, the kind of individual to shy away from a challenge.

He grew up, like so many football-daft kids in his homeland and around the world, idolising the former Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus forward.

But he always marvelled at the determination that CR7 showed to reach and remain at the very top of the global game just as much as his technical ability, football intelligence and physical prowess.

The Herald: So Bernardo was never, having witnessed a kid from an impoverished background in Madeira become one of the greatest footballers of all-time, going to let himself get downhearted by negative comments from pundits or boos from the crowd.

“Ronaldo is absolutely incredible,” he said. “Do I see him as a role model? Of course. It is his mental strength. He is like an idol to every player.

“We all look up to him. It is maybe a bit much to expect to achieve all the things that he has done and is still doing.

“But he is an inspiration to every player. He came from nothing and he succeeded and achieved so much. We always look to him and try to do our best as well.”

Bernardo, who endeared himself to Celtic fans greatly when he opened the scoring in the cinch Premiership win over Rangers at Parkhead in December, was delighted when Portugal were drawn in the same Nations League group as Scotland in Paris last week.

Ronaldo, who has a world record 205 international caps to his name, is 39 now and is plying his trade at Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia. Will he still be involved when the tournament gets underway in the autumn? His compatriot will not be in the slightest bit surprised if he is. 

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“It’s a very interesting draw with Portugal playing Scotland!” he said. “The boys haven’t said too much, but I am sure we will be talking about it nearer the time. It will be a nice game to see.

“Will Ronaldo be playing? Probably yes! You never know. He’s 39 but he keeps going. I don’t know if I will be playing at that age. I’ll need to look after my body like he does.”

Bernardo, who acquitted himself admirably alongside his captain Callum McGregor in the Champions League group games against Atletico Madrid, Feyenoord and Lazio this term, has represented Portugal at every age-group level and is currently a member of their under-21 squad along with Rangers striker Fabio Silva.

He appreciates that forcing his way into the senior team in future will be extremely difficult. Manager Roberto Martinez can deploy the likes of Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United, Ruben Neves of Al Hillal and Vitinha of Paris Saint-Germain in his position at the moment. However, it is a definite long-term objective and drives him on every day in training and during matches.  

The Herald: “It’s a very strong group of players coming through with Portugal right now,” he said. “But I have always dreamt about playing for the national team. It is an ambition of mine and it is also a big motivation to get to that stage and play for my country.”

Bernardo’s main focus at the moment, though, is ensuring Celtic, who will be overtaken at the top of the Premiership tonight if their city rivals Rangers beat Ross County by three goals at Ibrox, retain the Scottish title and Scottish Cup this season.

He helped the treble winners to win their difficult cup tie with St Mirren 2-0 in Paisley on Sunday and book their place in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Gas-sponsored national cup competition. 

However, he is adamant they can perform even better in the coming weeks and months and is determined to remain involved and help them do so. He stressed that nobody in the squad is downbeat about their prospects of landing silverware and enjoying a successful 2023/24 campaign. 

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“We have a long season with ups and downs,” he said. “We just have to stick together, the players, the coaches and the fans, keep going and keep improving. We’ve had some injuries, but I think we are doing quite well. We just need to take our opportunities in front of goal.

“We are doing some things well and there are some things we need to improve. Sometimes we have needed two more chances to score one goal and that makes things more difficult. We look at the things we are doing good and also the things that are not so good.

“It’s always good to play. The confidence levels go high and we improve much more in the games than just in training.”

The Herald: