This article assesses Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance for Portugal against Russia as the two European heavyweights battled it out at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz.
The home side emerged victorious following a particularly dominant display. Helder Postiga’s goal on nine minutes proved enough to separate the two sides, and earned he and his countrymen a valuable three points.
However, while Portugal may have temporarily taken the lead in Group F of UEFA’s World Cup Qualifying programme, their opponents this evening still have two games in hand. With two of their remaining five fixtures coming home and away against Luxembourg, qualification is still very much in the Russians’ hands.
Portugal may have to settle for a berth in the playoffs, although the emerging force of Israel may have something to say about that.
Even the infamous ‘Golden Generation’ that filled the Portuguese national team in the late '90s and early '00s managed to fail to qualify for a World Cup—dropping out of the running for France ’98 in a qualifying pool that contained Germany and Ukraine.
Even so, the prospect of a World Cup without this current star-studded Portugal team would be almost unthinkable, especially the potential absence of its pouting prima donna, one of the world’s undisputed "top two," Cristiano Ronaldo.
During his outing against Russia—a contest which was ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, a fairly routine 1-0 victory, the Real Madrid man once again demonstrated why he can be such a potent force, and why, even without scoring, he makes for such irresistible box office.
One of the most impressive aspects of his performance against Russia was his link up work with Fabio Coentrao down Portugal’s left flank. Ronaldo wasn’t tied down to a position out wide, but when his play took him there, he and his teammate demonstrated a delightful synergy.
Clearly it is a relationship that has been cultivated on the training grounds of Madrid and at the hands of besieged opposition throughout La Liga. Here, it worked particularly well, and time after time the pair linked up to devastating effect—leading to Russian right back Aleksandr Anyukov being withdrawn after after just 30 minutes.
Ronaldo’s versatility and terrific movement were also on display, and his performance highlighted why he is such an elite star. Beyond the mind-blowingly impressive physique and incredible power that Ronaldo possesses, he is also a cerebral athlete and an intelligent sportsman.
Against Russia he demonstrated his anticipation and awareness by drifting inside, dropping deep to receive the ball, pulling his markers away from potential danger zones and providing a platform for his team to build from.
This constant movement and multiplicity of roles clearly had a destabilising effect on the Russians, and meant that at times the Portuguese maestro found himself with huge swathes of space to work in.
The willingness to drop deep and become more involved in the team’s build-up in the support of others also demonstrated Ronaldo’s burgeoning maturity and highlighted the sense of responsibility he feels with this team.
While at Euro 2012, he was regularly pictured being comically irate with teammates who failed to read the game on the same level as he. The World Cup qualifier appeared to see him relishing his position of authority and thriving as the side’s talisman—their brains and heart as well as their power and panache.
I believe Ronaldo is also benefitting from the gradual improvements in the squad that surrounds him. Joao Moutinho has come on leaps and bounds over the last two seasons, and is showing signs of being a technical midfielder of genuine pedigree for AS Monaco. Raul Meireles is another who appears to have matured—at least in performance—since his move to Fenerbahce.
Miguel Veloso has developed since a move from the parochial confines of Genoa to the testing demands of Dynamo Kyiv, while the addition of Vieirinha, playing as an orthodox right winger, helps to give the team a balance and stability that has perhaps been lacking in years gone by.
All that was missing from Ronaldo’s performance was a goal…but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Time after time, the forward tested the Russian keeper with long-range shots that on another day would have quite comfortably nestled into one of the goal’s four corners. On every occasion, however, Igor Akinfeev was up to the task, and quite gratefully clutched the ball to his chest.
One notable exception came in the 28th minute when Ronaldo—by anyone’s standards—made a pretty diabolical hash of a ball that was pulled back to him. On this occasion, Akinfeev had nothing to do as the shot fired harmlessly, hopelessly over the bar.
This was followed by a typically petulant display of grimacing, arm-flapping and flexing, Moutinho’s would-be assist unappreciated…before, thankfully, Ronaldo moved on.
While Ronaldo’s wasteful shooting did highlight his greediness and perhaps his occasional inability to play in his teammates to the benefit of the team as a whole, it also highlighted another forgotten asset: his unpredictability.
The Real Madrid man has built such a terrific reputation for terrifying goalkeepers from a great distance and scoring goals from lengths that other men couldn’t imagine, that his presence in certain zones with a ball at his feet can often prompt panic in the hearts of defenders and goalkeepers alike.
This unpredictability can be a valuable asset if employed correctly. While Arjen Robben’s monotonous cutting inside and blazing over the bar has become tediously routine, Ronaldo’s ability to shoot effectively from distance, beat a man with pace or play in a teammate set him apart.
Portugal’s win keeps alive the prospect of Ronaldo—the most expensive footballer in history—featuring at his third World Cup. The Real Madrid man currently stands in third place in Portugal’s top-scorer list, three goals behind Eusebio, and nine behind Pauleta…what are the odds on him breaking the national record at Brazil’s centrepiece occasion next summer?
The grade represents the fact that while it was a measured and impressive display, for such an influential character, one so accustomed to making a difference in the biggest of games, Ronaldo’s only tangible contribution to the scoreline was his tumble that led to Veloso’s free kick.
The player has, over the last handful of years, created such insanely high standards for himself that it is natural that he is judged against these same achievements.