Intense eyes, a measured run-up from the stationary ball, his shorts rolled up to provide a glimpse of his toned hamstrings, Cristiano Ronaldo was a picture of concentration four minutes from full-time as Portugal trailed by a goal. Five seconds later, as the roof came off the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Ronaldo was huddled with his teammates, celebrating his 51st career hat-trick in his trademark style.
David de Gea was still rooted to his spot, the Spanish supporters reeling in stunned silence as the Portuguese talisman had single-handedly pulverised a splendid performance from the La Roja to enable a 3-3 draw in the second Group B fixture of the evening. Later, many would wonder if de Gea had been mistaken in his placement of the ‘wall of Spanish defenders’ to keep out Ronaldo’s curler, but it was beyond human abilities for the Spaniard to stop the swerving free-kick that dipped just the right amount before blasting off the net.
Be it Brazil’s 1-0 win over defending champions England in the group stages of 1970 or Italy’s masterclass over arguably the greatest Brazilian side to have never won the World Cup in 1982, or Argentina’s infamous victory over England in the 1986 quarter-final tie, the FIFA World Cup has served classic encounters with a relish of sporting drama; and the fourth match of this edition was no different. There were lot of subplots to this beast of an encounter, especially with Julen Lopetegui’s sacking just two days back — while Spain headed into the World Cup in better form, it was Fernando Santos’ Selecaos who were the perfect paradigm of calm and stability, in spite of their captain’s legal issues back home.
A mouthwatering clash between two discreet tactical ideologies was expected but not many presumed Portugal will take the lead in as early as third minute. In a Spanish backline of Nacho, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba, the Real Madrid fullback was the apparent weak link and it didn’t take the Portugal skipper long to draw a routine foul within the penalty area. Skipping past Nacho with nimble foot, Ronaldo invited a challenge and promptly went down in the box, earning a soft yet legitimate penalty. David de Gea attempted his usual antics, but the culmination of the eventual spot kick was never in doubt.
Ronaldo’s cheeky smile towards Nacho in the aftermath was barely a preview of the pulsating thriller that was to follow. The early goal cemented the fruitfulness of Santos’ tactical scheme of maintaining their shape and conceding possession to Spain, only to counter occasionally. Spain, haggled by the happenstances of last week, showcased their resilience as they patiently clawed their way back.
Coming into the World Cup, Spain’s biggest worry was not Lopetegui’s stunning departure but the absence of a centre-forward honed in their style of play — Diego Costa with his tutelage under Diego Simeone and spells under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte being the farthest cry from the requirement. However, on Friday, the Brazil-born forward spearheaded the Spanish attack with elan, his first goal of the night an apt display of his attributes.
Out-muscling Pepe in an aerial challenge, Costa then rounded past three Portugal shirts to slot in the equaliser past an outstretched Patricio. Spain’s first of the night came right after a failed Portugal counter-attack as Goncalo Guedes suffered a case of the nerves, and just like that, the momentum swung in Spain’s favour.
Through Andres Iniesta and Isco’s scintillating moves between the channels, Spain orchestrated attacks by outpassing their Portuguese counterparts as Joao Moutinho and William Carvalho struggled to keep up with the flurry of swift passes around them. Perhaps Spain’s biggest error of judgment was in not exposing the lack of pace in the Portuguese defence on enough occasions, for Isco and Alba’s overlapping runs in the space behind Cedric Soares and Pepe was rarely met with resistance. Such a move had almost resulted in one of the montage-worthy goals for Spain, only for Isco to hit the bar.
As the 2010 World Cup champions asserted their might, the Navigators seemed to have been drawn into a shell, only for Cristiano Ronaldo to pull them out. This time, however, he had some help from de Gea. The Spaniard fluffed a formulaic save as he spilled Ronaldo’s powerful but straight down the ground strike into his own net — English keepers are often guilty of erring on the big stages, but nobody expected such a gaffe from Premier League’s finest Spanish goalkeeping import, least of all his own manager, the reclusive Fernando Hierro.
Hierro is as reluctant a national team manager as they come, but his Spanish side had put in an ebullient shift across the spectrum, operating at the highest calibre for the entirety of ninety minutes. If Diego Costa’s second equaliser of the night was an embodiment of how far Spain have come from their era-defining ‘tiki-taka’ days, Nacho’s screamer to give Spain the lead after the ball had ping-ponged across their attacking third was exhibition-worthy. Spain’s meagre lead in the last quarter of the game did not come as a surprise as the reigning European champions were particularly sub-par in midfield – the dearth of creativity in the Portuguese ranks worsened by a quiet display from their deep midfielders.
If temperament issues were Portugal’s stumbling block, Ronaldo certainly did not get the memo. The forward has made it a norm that he lives and plays for monumental occasions like these, pulling out all stops against the big guns in recent years. Since Portugal’s demoralising group-stage exit in the previous World Cup, Ronaldo has been commandeering spectacular performances on a consistent basis. Not only does he channelise his drive to win through sensational goals, but he dazzles all through, inspiring his teammates to raise their game.
“I always believe in myself, I work for this but I want to emphasise the response of the team,” Ronaldo said afterwards, his larger-than-life persona and marvellous sporting prowess often concealing his work ethic and his adeptness to galvanise his peers, but Friday’s legacy-defining sporting feast would go down in history books as one of the greatest individual performances in a FIFA World Cup.
At 33, Ronaldo is not getting any younger but the sheer number of times he outpaced his younger compatriot on a counter and foxed the Spanish backline reasserts his timeless ability to make it count just when it matters. Ronaldo was nothing less than electrifying and his eclectic abilities only seemed to be enhanced by his supreme confidence. For all the talk about tactics and strategies, the ongoing edition of the FIFA World Cup hasn’t seen any defensive masterclasses so far, but even then, it was no mean feat for Ronaldo to score in his eighth successive international tournament.
In the process, the talismanic forward also became only the fourth footballer in history to score in four different World Cups. On an evening when Costa’s combination of brute force and precision shooting threatened to steal the headlines, Ronaldo seized the spotlight like he has done on innumerable occasions, lapping up all the pressure and serving Spain in kind — providing clarity amidst all the chaos, reiterating the popular belief that he is the generational talent who can shoulder the responsibility of carrying his team to the pinnacle.
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Updated Date: Jun 16, 2018 14:23:17 IST