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Iconic Performances: Ronaldo treble stuns Spain

Spain and Portugal is one of international football’s oldest rivalries, with the neighbouring nations each belonging to the elite of the game.

Clashes between the two teams often bring fans either side of the Iberian peninsula to a standstill. That intrigue is only amplified when the nations cross paths in major competition.

The 2018 World Cup draw placed the teams together in the group stage, with each travelling to Russia with ambitions of challenging. The remnants of Spain’s dominant side of earlier in the decade remained, while Portugal arrived at the tournament as European champions after ending their long wait for international success at Euro 2016.

Ahead of their opening clash, the pre-game talk centred around the Spanish. Preparations for the tournament had been thrown into chaos after head coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked just two days before the meeting with Portugal, after it was announced he would be leaving for Real Madrid following the tournament.

If the build-up had focused on Lopetegui, there was just one name who was headline news as the full-time whistle blew in Sochi – Cristiano Ronaldo.

A chaotic build-up spilled into the contest, with the result a classic World Cup clash. Spain twice cancelled out goals from Portugal, as the traditional sparring partners from Southern Europe traded punches with spite. When Spain then found a second-half sucker-punch, Portugal – and Ronaldo – dug deep, bit down on the gum shield, and fought back.

In a game that swung freely like a pendulum, it was Spain who were the better side. Portugal, however, had the trump card in an iconic individual performance from their talisman.

Ronaldo opened the scoring from the penalty spot. His footwork invited a challenge from Real Madrid teammate Nacho, whose protests fell on deaf ears with the officials after a lazy leg brought Ronaldo down inside the area.

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Less than four minutes in and Portugal led, as Ronaldo emphatically slammed the spot-kick past David de Gea to become just the fourth man to have scored at four separate World Cups.

Spain showed vulnerability on the break, but Diego Costa led their charge back into the contest. Costa was not always an easy fit into the subtleties of Spanish football, but the Brazil-born battering ram brought La Roja level, as he crashed into Pepe before continuing on, leaving Jose Fonte and Cedric twisted inside the area before firing home.

It was Portugal’s turn to regroup and respond, with Ronaldo putting his side back ahead just before the break. Against the run of play, his low left-footed effort squirmed through David de Gea’s grasp in a horrible moment for the goalkeeper.

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As the half-time whistle blew Portugal were ahead, but the Spanish were made of stern stuff. Upped was their level of control and within minutes the narrative of the game had changed.

First, Costa brought the sides level from close range after a well-worked free-kick routine. Moments later, Nacho smashed home a finish from the edge of the area to atone for his earlier error.

Ronaldo had scored twice in the first half, but appeared set to end on the losing side. Spain dominated the ball, exhibiting passages of football that had become synonymous with their reign as international football’s dominant force. The Portuguese huffed and harried, but struggled to close down the carousel of Spanish possession.

As time ticked towards full-time, it looked set to be another disappointment for Ronaldo at football’s biggest event. The FIFA World Cup is the greatest stage for a professional footballer. It’s the equivalent of Madison Square Garden to a world champion boxer, or an Olympic final to those in athletics. It’s the culmination of a lifetime of work.

Ronaldo, however, had failed to truly stamp his mark on the tournament. Despite all the titles won and records achieved at club level, by his own expectations his three previous attempts had been underwhelming.

That narrative changed in the final moments, as Ronaldo was handed one last chance. Stood over a free-kick, he took his familiar sharp inhale and exhale of breath before taking aim. The result was spectacular.

Having been a spectator for much of the second half, Ronaldo had the last word. With 44 previous attempts from set-pieces at major tournaments he had never scored. This one could hardly have been more perfect.

It rose and dipped and swerved en route into the top corner, with David de Gea powerless to prevent it. What had been an enthralling encounter was decided at the dead by its lead character, the Portugal captain and the man for the big occasion.

Ronaldo’s goal was a stunning strike, a final twist in the tale. It was a goal that made Ronaldo the oldest hat-trick scorer in World Cup history, aged 33 years and 130 days.

“Even at 3-2 down, he was the one who raised the team and went on with absolute trust,” Portugal manager Fernando Santo reflected.

“That is innate but also he plays in great teams and is always in finals and that gives him a very different perspective. It’s great to have someone like that.”

A footballer who had made a habit of delivering decisive moments had just produced another one. On the grandest of stages, he had delivered a one-man show to save his side.

“When you are playing a player like Ronaldo these things can happen,” Spain manager Fernando Hierro reluctantly conceded at full-time. “When you have a player like Ronaldo, it is extremely fortunate for whichever team has him.”

Read – Iconic Performances: The night Zinedine Zidane dominated Brazil

Read Also – Iconic Performances: Fabio ‘The Berlin Wall’ Cannavaro in the 2006 World Cup semi-final

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