It didn’t take long for Cristiano Ronaldo to make the introductions on his arrival in the Russian capital. Just four minutes on the Luzhniki Stadium clock and the net was billowing to his tune, a header of the bullet variety sent whistling past Munir Mohamedi.
Get that golden boot polished.
Goal hanging has had no greater exponent than Ronaldo in his late period and his goal here, his 85th for his country, set a European record. It moved him ahead of Hungary great Ferenc Puskas and alone in second place worldwide behind Ali Daei’s 109 goals for Iran.
With regard to Russia 2018 Ronaldo’s goal tally is four in two games, that’s one more than in the three previous World Cups combined. Since it is not possible to marvel to any greater degree at this part of his game in this phase of his career, we should perhaps wonder what the hell he was playing at in 2006, 2010 and 2014? Not this, that’s for sure.
When the ball arced into the box the appeal was general, as in someone get a head on it! Though it could have been anybody, we have come to understand it is always Ronaldo, the inner satellite divining space like no other allowing him to get to the ball a split second before the defender’s boot. This was goal number 33 in 34 matches for his country in the three years since turning 30, adding to the 52 he scored in 118 games previously.
It is just as well he is knocking them in because there is precious little else to get excited about with this Portugal team, at least in this configuration.
You have to feel sorry for Morocco. They come at opponents like a swarm of highly technical bees, the high press seemingly an article of faith impelling the red shirts forward in high number no matter what the circumstance.
They repeatedly raced around the back of the Portugal defence in the first half and frequently hit the deck in the box, but got nil sympathy from the referee. Portugal, on the other hand, appeared generously rewarded every time a player went over.
The foul that drew a free-kick on the edge of the Morocco box for an infringement against Joao Mario half an hour in appeared no different in character to two Moroccan penalty claims waved away. Perhaps it would be different if Morocco had a player with a penchant for tucking his shorts in his pants when the cameras zoom in. Maybe that was the point being made to referee Mark Geiger of the USA by Morocco’s French coach, Herve Renard, pictured, at half-time.
“It’s not up to me to comment on refereeing,” Renard said. “I just ask you to look at the replays. A foul [by Pepe] should have been seen and then Ronaldo appears as usual. If I criticise referees I will be criticised and punished.”
Either way, back to centre stage walked Ronaldo to line up the free-kick. With only 30 minutes gone there was obviously insufficient tension in the moment, the ball rebounding off the wall in an underwhelming non-turning point that was met with a shrug.
Morocco were dominant in possession, had twice as many shots and were the more ambitious team. But Portugal have Ronaldo. It must have been an odd experience for him to spend the second half as part of a team wearing all white that stacked ten men behind the ball.
The result is all, of course, and this takes Portugal to the brink of qualification for the knockout stage. Furthermore it is Ronaldo’s name against the only stat that matters, a detail which earned him the man of the match tribute, which also made him happy.
“The most important was to win the game and make the three points,” he said. “We know if we lose we could be out. It was a surprise. They were very strong. I managed to strike a goal and make those three points. It was beautiful for me. The expectation now is to try to improve. We are almost there, the goal is to think match by match.”
Portugal coach Fernando Santos accepted that his team were outplayed, that Morocco were unlucky and not for the first time, gave thanks that Ronaldo is on his team-sheet.
“Cristiano is like a port wine always evolving,” said Santos. “He knows what he wants and what he can do. He is in very good form and the whole team benefits.”
That’s pretty much how Renard saw it. “It is true that it is a lot easier to play with a player who has a goal opportunity and scores. We have high quality players and should have been more effective but this is what happens in football. Those who know how to be in the box, the most gifted players, are the ones who make all the difference.”