He left it late, but he summoned up something remarkable in the end.
For almost the entire 94 minutes that preceded his final moment of brilliance in Manaus Sunday, Cristiano Ronaldo had been a pale shadow of his usual self, leaving those around the world reviewing and revising their opinion on just how fit he really is.
Had the knee injury—the painful tendinosis that also reportedly affected the end of his season with Real Madrid—left him at just 70 percent fitness for this World Cup?
Or, after watching another run easily stopped by an American defender, was it 60 percent? Maybe even only 50 percent?
Whatever the truth—only Ronaldo (and his doctors) knows, and he is unlikely to advertise that weakness to the world with big games still to be played—the 29-year-old had enough command of his considerable talents to produce one of the finest crosses you will ever see in the closing seconds against Team USA, a delivery that continued his country’s World Cup participation for at least another game.
Down 2-1 to the United States with the clock winding down, a second defeat would have made it mathematically impossible for Portugal to reach the knockout stages. But Ronaldo, in a last throw of the dice, found an onrushing Silvestre Varela with a perfect cross from wide on the right, as the substitute’s straightforward header levelled the score at 2-2.
Portugal are still unlikely to reach the last 16. But, for now, thanks to Ronaldo, they have a sliver of a chance.
Ronaldo was clearly not fit and comfortable on Sunday evening, but he still managed to make an impact at the end. It was an otherwise erratic performance: His first touch of the game saw the ball roll out of bounds, while his handful of sights of goal all resulted in the sort of wild shots and errant headers that we rarely saw from him this season in a Real Madrid shirt.
He did not look anywhere near his best, and his reluctance to track back only seemed to confirm that he was operating on limited function. Yet his first moment of real class on the ball directly preceded Portugal’s early opener, while his last provided their vital equaliser.
If more of his team-mates had stepped up to the occasion, maybe his interventions would have been winning ones.
"There didn't seem to be any problem with Cristiano Ronaldo," Portugal coach Paulo Bento told reporters, not altogether convincingly. "What happened during the game has something to do with our other players."
Bento’s assessment was right, if somewhat pandering to his side’s one true star. Part of those issues were a result of an unfortunate spate of injuries. Having lost striker Hugo Almeida to injury and defender Pepe to suspension in the first game, Bento watched from the sidelines as Almeida’s replacement, Helder Postiga, also pulled up lame within the first few minutes of the contest.
That meant one change was used bringing on Eder, a striker clearly a bit too raw to lead the line at this level. But then full-back Andre Almeida also had to come off with an injury at half-time, an issue that seemingly forced midfielder Miguel Veloso to drop in at left-back.
Portugal, for all the brilliance of their star, had been forced into creating a patchwork cast around him.
Nevertheless, those unaffected by medical concerns hardly pulled their weight. Nani, a player whose career British pundit Mark Lawrenson blithely once suggested had been hampered “by a niggling brain injury," tapped home his country’s opener but was otherwise erratic, wasteful on the ball and negligent in his tracking back.
Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles, two well-travelled and well-paid midfielders, struggled to win the battle with the less-vaunted Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman, while the vastly experienced defender Bruno Alves was breathtakingly slow to clear his lines as Clint Dempsey chested in Graham Zusi’s cross to give Jurgen Klinsmann’s side the lead.
Alves' usual defence partner, Pepe, had embarrassed himself with his sending off in the opener against Germany; in a different way, this was a similarly inexcusable bit of defending.
As the U.S., organised almost to the last, shamed their European opponents with their work rate and positioning, real questions also started forming about Bento’s coaching. Had he really produced the best system with the players at his disposal?
But then Ronaldo produced his moment of magic, postponing the awkward post-mortem the likes of England and Spain have already embarked upon for at least a few more days.
“We started extremely well,” Bento reflected. “But we had great difficulty in holding the right flank of the United States.
“We tried to change this situation in the first half and the remainder in the second and yet we were unsuccessful in doing so. The 2-2 draw was the outcome of what we did in the dying stages of the game.”
He meant “what Ronaldo did," of course.
Ronaldo has no doubt sat back in the last 10 days and watched as Argentina's Lionel Messi and Brazil's Neymar, two of the most likely contenders to his current Ballon d’Or crown, have already made high-profile individual impacts on games at this World Cup.
Both have already scored twice, both have already picked up man-of-the-match awards and both have already garnered plenty of headlines for their brilliant ways.
It must be of great frustration to Ronaldo—the sport’s premier prima donna—that he is not in the physical state to try to match their feats, let alone try to outdo them.
It may be that the moment is still to come, in the final group game against Ghana. But, given the medical reports that have slipped out from the Portugal camp, it appears unlikely that Ronaldo’s condition will improve sufficiently in time to put him nearer the 100 percent status he probably needs to have.
In different circumstances, that would not be the end of the world. Ronaldo has needed his coach to fashion a side that can function without relying heavily on his considerable gifts, and his team-mates to step up and take some of the load off his creaking knees.
By and large, they have failed to do that. That, not their talisman's fitness, is why they are set for an early exit.
"It is obvious that the result of the game is not good," Bento concluded. "The result does not put us out of the World Cup, but it leaves us in a very complicated situation."
One even a fully fit Ronaldo would struggle to extricate them from.
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