Every World Cup finals needs great players to do great things and there are few who intervene more consistently at the great crossroads of history than Cristiano Ronaldo, king of the big stage and all that happens on it.
Just a hat-trick to declare in this, his 151st cap for Portugal against the great Spain generation of the 21st century, including a third from a free-kick which was one of those moments when he insists that the world stops what it is doing to watch. He hitched up his shorts, shut his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and then clipped a right foot shot around the wall so accurately that David De Gea did not even spring for it.
This was a World Cup game for all the ages, and if Russia 2018 had so far been about narrow margins and small nations overachieving, then this was the deluxe edition featuring two great sides and ultimately one historical footballer.
These were Ronaldo’s 82nd, 83rd and 84th goals of a golden international career over which his game has changed but his contribution to Portugal, a better team that the Euro 2016 winners, but still quite ordinary, has never flagged. There is no side that knows him better than Spain do, no defence with more experience of playing with and against him and yet Ronaldo locates vulnerability wherever he goes and whoever he plays.
These goals meant that he became only the fourth man in history to score in four World Cup finals and the first to do so in eight straight international tournaments, and it is not simply that he did so, it was also that he knew that he had to. He twice gave Portugal the lead, although this was still a great Spain performance at times, coming back through two goals from Diego Costa and then given the lead by Nacho.
How does Ronaldo do it? He exploited his Real Madrid team-mate Nacho to win a penalty for the first, he was gifted the second by De Gea’s blunder and the third was one of those moments for which he lives. He won the free-kick, just right of centre and the perfect distance and who is to say that all that was not part of the plan, one more shrewd move in an evening that was full of them.
Even so, it could have been worse for Spain who dominated possession as usual but were flustered by Ronaldo early on and were unable to rely on De Gea. They broke down Portugal’s ageing defence piece by piece in the energy sapping heat of this stadium by the Black Sea and really should have won the game once Nacho gave them the lead. If the sacking of Julen Lopetegui affected them it was perhaps on their lack of composure in the early stages but they soon found their stride.
The half ended with Ronaldo surreptitiously glancing up at the big screens to check out his own celebration in the way that he always permits himself to do after yet another great career plot-twist. In one half of football, he had scored his 82nd and 83rd goals of a remarkable international career against the one country that might know best how to stop him and for Portugal it was almost all going to plan.
There is nothing like watching the late-era Ronaldo for a lesson in economy of movement and swift identification of the maximum opportunity. The slo-mo on the stadium screens captured the look of foreboding on the face of his Real Madrid team-mate Sergio Ramos as he realised he was not going to be able to cover the shot that was Ronaldo’s second. Ramos was late for the only show in town and the punishment was coming.
Either side of Diego Costa’s tremendous equaliser, a brutal roughing-up of Portugal’s defence, Ronaldo showed how that even on this, his 151st cap for his country at the age of 33 he knows precisely where to go on the pitch and when to get there. He tricked his Madrid team-mate Nacho into conceding the softest penalty within three minutes and later dragged Ramos all over the pitch.
Ronaldo has built a good partnership with the young Valencia forward Goncalo Guedes which sees the two of them balance one another’s positions well. The great goalscorer of Portugal drops into the No 10 position occasionally and flicks balls off, and there was one occasion when he cut a chance back to Guedes so unexpectedly that the younger man snatched at his chance out of what seemed surprise.
That was another fine break on the counter-attack against a Spain team were open when they lost the ball, and brilliantly exploited by Ronaldo. With barely two minutes played, he brushed off David Silva and bewildered Nacho with a stepover to win the penalty which he scored. His second went straight through David De Gea, a terrible mistake from the Manchester United goalkeeper who has made a series of them for his country in recent games. He seemed to have his left hand wrongly set to make what was a routine stop.
That second goal, a minute before half-time, undid Spain’s hard-work at getting back into the game. Both Isco and Andres Iniesta were lively but it was Costa’s ability to push the limits that got them the equaliser. On 24 minutes, he put an arm into Pepe’s jaw to get the ball and then twisted the hapless Jose Fonte both ways as he lined up the shot. Fonte was desperately awaiting reinforcements but they never arrived.
Costa’s second equaliser of the day showed again the lack of sharpness in Fonte and Pepe, when he turned in Busquets’s knockdown. Nacho’s right foot hit, in off the post was glorious. Iniesta was replaced by Thiago and even Costa was given a rest after an evening of hunting the Portugal defence. Spain looked set to close the game out and yet by the end they came very close to losing it.
When Ronaldo stepped up for his free-kick, De Gea, gave him the left side of his goal and relied on the wall which jumped as best it could – and there may even have been a flick of Busquets. Either way, it was enough and Portugal even created one more chance for Ronaldo, who these days knows that the big moments will always come his way.
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