Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick for Portugal as he denied Fernando Hierro’s Spain victory with a stunning late free-kick in their World Cup Group B opener today.
Two days after Julen Lopetegui was fired as Spain boss for agreeing to a post-tournament move to Real Madrid, more pain lay in wait for the Spaniards as Ronaldo swerved a vicious shot into David de Gea’s corner to avert defeat in a spellbinding, topsy-turvy match.
Ronaldo had earlier opened the scoring, a penalty in the fourth minute after Nacho felled him in the box, before Diego Costa’s bullying low finish dragged Spain back into the match.
But just before the break De Gea made a terrible and uncharacteristic error, fumbling a zipping Ronaldo shot through his gloves and over the line. Another dose of adversity for Spain to deal with.
But Hierro’s men responded through Costa again, the Atletico Madrid striker smashing in from Sergio Busquets’ knockdown nine minutes after half-time, before Nacho redeemed himself with a stunning volley from the edge of the area that crashed in off both posts.
For his part, Ronaldo was largely anonymous in the second half, a spectator to Spain’s recovery, but he emerged from the shadows of this fascinating spectacle to define the game’s result and in doing so become just the fourth player to score at four World Cups.
Ronaldo was just Ronaldo. The star attraction for many of the thousands of fans from all over the world who gathered at Sochi’s Fisht Stadium did not disappoint. At 33, this is perhaps his last chance at a World Cup win, and he looks ready to drag his side along as far as he can.
He tasted glory at last with his national team at Euro 2016 but was forced off in the final. The way he galvanised those around him here makes you wonder whether Portugal should be considered serious favourites, too.
Before this game Ronaldo had scored only three times from 13 World Cup games. His return still doesn’t make for Ronaldo-like reading – six in 14 – but with the opening goal he became the fourth player to score in four separate World Cups, joining Germans Miroslav Klose and Uwe Seeler and Brazil legend Pele.
And the Portuguese is now also the first player in history to score in eight consecutive major tournaments in a streak going back to Euro 2004.
He is only just getting started on his final tilt at the pinnacle of the game.
There were so many subplots in play on this humid night in the south of Russia, not least Lopetegui’s departure.
After the week Spain have had some suggested they should no longer be considered among the favourites to win this competition. From the first half, it looked like things would get much worse for them before it got any better.
Nacho’s naive trip was a terrible start, no way to help compose the nerves, and there was never any doubt how Ronaldo would deal with the occasion. De Gea was sent the wrong way.
The bad signs kept coming. Busquets of all people fell over on the ball and got booked fouling his man. Ronaldo looked so ready for the occasion you would have backed him to smash the free-kick into the net, instead, it hit a head in the wall and Spain survived.
That they did owed much to the heroic block from Jordi Alba just before Costa’s first goal, and despite De Gea’s error sending them behind once more, they emerged from the break with cool heads that searched for and found the fluency so characteristic of the football they have played since the European Championship-winning side of 2008. That must be applauded.
There had been so many questions raised in the build-up to this game about Spain’s mental state but this gutsy performance, in which they showed beautiful glimpses of their real ability, has provided a comprehensive answer, despite Ronaldo’s late blow.