Cristiano Ronaldo rose from the bench to keep Portugal's hopes of automatic qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup alive on Saturday, netting the opening goal in his country's crucial 2-0 win in Andorra.
Portugal struggled to open up the home side in the first period, as the minnows dug in and defended gamely in front of their supporters.
It meant Ronaldo, who began the match as a substitute, was called on at half-time. He found a breakthrough in the 63rd minute, controlling and finishing superbly inside the area. With the clock ticking down, Andre Silva added some gloss to the scoreline with a second.
The win means Portugal stay three points behind Switzerland, who beat Hungary 5-2 on the night, in the race to top Group B. The two sides meet on Tuesday in Lisbon in the final qualification match, with a Selecao victory ensuring automatic qualification since they would win the tiebreaker on goal difference.
With a number of key players one booking away from a suspension for that potential decider, Portugal boss Fernando Santos made some big selection decisions.
Ronaldo was one of those at risk and was subsequently named as a substitute; Cedric Soares, Jose Fonte and Andre Gomes were also benched for that reason.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a lack of rhythm in Portugal's play early on. They found passing patterns and penetrative play hard to put together. As noted by journalist Jan Hagen, while the European champions dominated the ball, there was little incision:
Andorra did start to show some signs of raggedness at the end of a half in which they'd otherwise been solid. Ricardo Quaresma was at the heart of most of Portugal's good work; he should have scored when free at the back post, but he was only able to plant a header wide.
Andre Silva also should have done more when the ball dropped to him in the penalty area, though he could only fire over. Having ventured forward, Pepe saw a thunderous 20-yard shot stopped by Josep Gomes before the break too.
As stated by journalist Tom Kundert at the interval, despite having less quality than the visitors, the hosts were able to stay compact and frustrate:
With Switzerland on course for victory, Santos didn't waste much time summoning the team's talisman and captain at the break—Ronaldo was on for the start of the second half.
The introduction didn't have the instant impact Santos would have been hoping for, as Andorra continued to defend with assurance. But the benefit of having a player like Ronaldo on the pitch is that one lapse in focus is all that's needed for him to make a difference.
Just after the hour mark, he did, controlling a loose ball on his thigh before prodding home inside the area. As noted by Squawka Football, Ronaldo is enjoying quite the qualifying campaign:
Per Hagen, there was extra significance to this goal:
The goal sapped any tension from the Portugal players, and they started to operate with a little more freedom. Openings came with increasing regularity, and Gomes was on hand to claw away a fine effort from Bernardo Silva with 17 minutes remaining.
Andre Silva squandered a brilliant opportunity to make the match safe as the clock ticked down when he failed to capitalise on fine work from Bernardo Silva and Ronaldo. But the AC Milan striker did eventually get his name on the scoresheet four minutes from time to wrap this one up after Ronaldo's deep cross was headed into his path by Danilo Pereira.
It made the game safe for Portugal and ensured Tuesday's showdown with Switzerland in the capital will be a thriller.