Varela Screamer Saves Ronaldo's Blushes as Portugal Edge Denmark
With three minutes remaining, Portugal and Denmark were locked at 2-2, and the critics' guns were locked, loaded and pointed in the direction of Cristiano Ronaldo.
In Portugal's opener against Germany, he barely threatened—as Portugal succumbed to a lacklustre 1-0 opening defeat.
Denmark were far more accommodating. Ronaldo saw a lot of the ball, frequently took possession in space and twice found himself clean through on goal with only goalkeeper Stephan Andersen to beat.
Both times, Ronaldo's convictions betrayed him.
His apologetic efforts were unrecognisable from the emphatic finishing we saw in prolific quantity last season in La Liga. And as the clock ran down, Portugal were paying the price.
Paulo Bento's men had surrendered a 2-0 lead and looked in danger of surrendering the match.
Denmark were pressing dangerously—growing stronger with every attack and threatening a remarkable comeback win that would have virtually guaranteed a quarterfinal berth.
Both Denmark goals had been scored by Arsenal's forgotten man Nicklas Bendtner. And both had been created in space on Portugal's left—where the combination of Ronaldo and his Madrid teammate Fabio Coentrao were being overrun by the Danes.
Perhaps Ronaldo's desperation to impact the game in forward areas was impacting his defensive duties?
Perhaps Portugal's central midfielders simply weren't filling in well enough when Ronaldo left the hole behind him to forage upfield?
In old-fashioned football parlance, you might say Ronaldo was "cheating." He was getting forward and not getting back—therein providing Portugal with an extra player in attack, but leaving them a man down in defense.
That's all very well if a player is doing the requisite damage in forward areas. But Ronaldo's failure to capitalize on his opportunities, along with a number of badly-judged passes and overindulgent dribbles, suggested he wasn't.
And so there he was, with three minutes to play—stood in a forward position, still trying to make his mark, but with Portugal's Euro 2012 campaign hanging in the balance.
A draw wouldn't have sent them home, but it would certainly have made the prospect more likely, and it would also have made their final game against the Netherlands a must-win.
Nobody could have predicted what happened next.
Varela, a 27-year-old midfielder who few expected to even make Portugal's squad this season, fizzed a rocket of a shot into the corner of the net to win the game.
It was a goal with huge implications for Group B—the much-fabled "Group of Death."
Portugal's fate is now back in their own hands. Victory against the Netherlands in the last game will see them into the quarterfinals and keep alive their chances of winning a first major trophy—eight years after they finished runners-up at Euro 2004.
It could also prove a defining goal in the international career of Ronaldo.
The Real Madrid star has gone missing so far at Euro 2012, and he would have taken most of the blame had Portugal drawn or lost against Denmark.
Varela has earned him a reprieve.
The big question now, is whether Ronaldo can take advantage in Portugal's Group B showdown with the Netherlands.
The stakes could barely be higher.
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