Northern Ireland vs. Portugal: Score, Grades and Post-Match Reaction

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2013

Portugal stayed top of Group F with a 4-2 win over Northern Ireland.

It was an ugly game in almost every aspect. The weather in Belfast was very ugly, and there were plenty of horrible officiating calls and stupid mistakes.

Bruno Alves got Portugal on the board with a very nicely taken goal. The ball was cleared from a Portuguese corner, and it fell right to the feet of the 31-year-old centre-back. Rather than trying to smash the volley through the back of the net, Alves calmly placed his shot into the bottom left corner, past a sprawling Roy Carroll.

It was the kind of calm and collected finish you see from strikers or midfielders.

BBC 5 Live's Alistair Bruce-Ball was impressed with the touch from Alves.

It was a big goal for Portugal, since up to that point, Northern Ireland had looked very good and weren't giving their opponents much in the final third.

In the 36th minute, Gareth McAuley equalized. You knew Northern Ireland had to make the most of their set pieces, and that's exactly what they did. Off a corner, McAuley received a cross from Shane Ferguson and headed it in from about six yards out. It wasn't the prettiest goal, but it counts all the same.

TalkSPORT's Colin Murray thought it was a goal that Northern Ireland had earned with their performance on the pitch.

Seven minutes later, McAuley was, once again, right in the thick of things. He and Helder Postiga were fighting for a ball. It didn't look to be anything more extreme than your typical scrap, but Postiga clearly took issue with something McAuley did or said. The Portuguese forward headbutted the defender and was given a red card (h/t Northern Irish FA).

It wasn't a violent headbutt, but for a veteran player like Postiga, he should have known better and kept his calm. With Portugal down a man, it would be very hard for them to get the better of Northern Ireland in the second half.

Conceding another goal didn't help either. Once again, it was Portugal's defending on a set piece that came back to bite them. Jonny Evans headed the ball at goal and right at his teammate, Jamie Ward. Ward tried to get a flick himself, but he was able to deflect the ball enough that it went in without any more help.

On the replays, Ward looked to be quite offside, and Bleacher Report's Dan Levy wanted everyone to see that bad officiating is not unique to one league or country.

Portugal got a major lifeline when Chris Brunt was sent off in the 55th minute for picking up his second yellow card.

With Brunt's sending off, the Portuguese were able to get into the match much more. They were creating chances on goal and getting a foothold on the game again.

In the 68th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo found the equalizer from yet another set piece. Ronaldo powered home a header into the net off a corner kick.

With the wet conditions, both teams did a great job of making their set pieces count.

Ronaldo found the eventual winner in the 77th minute. It was a very direct goal, as Fabio Coentrao delivered a 40-yard ball into the box, where it was headed home by the Portuguese star.

It was Ronaldo's fourth goal in Portugal's last three matches (h/t OptaJoe).

Things only got worse for Northern Ireland when Kyle Lafferty was handed a straight red card for a rash tackle on Joao Pereira.

Ronaldo got his hat-trick in the 83rd minute when his free kick bounced by an outstretched Carroll. The goalkeeper probably should have done better, as he was slow to react as the free kick slipped through the wall.

Perhaps Ronaldo was spurred on by what he heard from the Belfast crowd (h/t Dirty Tackle).

That was the goal that dashed any hopes of a Northern Irish comeback. Portugal were able to cruise for the final minutes of the match.


Key Player Grades

Cristiano Ronaldo: A

Cristiano Ronaldo is often criticized for failing to carry his club form over to the national team. Sometimes it's deserved criticism. For the most part, it's unfair as Ronaldo has yet to get consistent support in the Portugal attack.

This is the kind of match where Ronaldo can win it all by himself, though. Northern Ireland aren't top competition, and the star winger should be able to dictate the game, no matter how much attention he gets.

That's exactly what Ronaldo did. With his team down a man, he was able to rally the troops and make sure things didn't unravel. It's exactly what you would want to see from a captain, and those three goals didn't hurt either.


Gareth McAuley: B+

Gareth McAuley was the best player on the pitch for Northern Ireland. He was right in the middle of everything they were doing, whether it was the opening goal and subsequent second goal, or the sending-off of Helder Postiga.

Northern Ireland were a very hard side to break down, and much of that was down to McAuley and Jonny Evans marshaling the centre of defence.


Helder Postiga: D

You must want to pull your hair out if you're Paulo Bento. You simply cannot find an answer as to whom will be that forward at the top of your attack who can take some pressure off Ronaldo. No player has consistently put himself at the top of the list.

And then Helder Postiga does this. Postiga has the talent to be the regular first-choice striker. However, he can also be wildly inconsistent, and then he's always liable to do something stupid, like get sent off in the 43rd minute with the score level.



What's Next

Portugal will want to keep pace with Russia when they welcome Israel on October 11 in their next qualifying match, while Northern Ireland will travel to Azerbaijan.