Ronaldo has the final say as Portugal and Spain play out thrilling draw

Portuguese star completes hat-trick with stunning free-kick in Sochi

 Cristiano Ronaldo completes his hat-trick for Portugal  with a free-kick in the World Cup Group B game against Spain at the Fisht Stadium  in Sochi. Photograph:   Michael Steele/Getty Images

Cristiano Ronaldo completes his hat-trick for Portugal with a free-kick in the World Cup Group B game against Spain at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

 

Portugal 3 Spain 3

There was a time when games between these two produced goals aplenty all right but that was before Portugal became a footballing power in their own right and settled comfortably, as Sergio Ramos put it so disparagingly, into their defensive formation.

The Real Madrid defender might have been essentially right but you could scarcely quibble this time with either side’s contribution to what was a truly remarkable game here in Sochi. Ronaldo and co might only have had three shots on target, but happily for them he converted them all and we got more goals than than the four previous championship meetings between the sides had produced.

Ronaldo, ultimately, left the most indelible mark on the game but Fernando Hierro will have seen enough, one suspects, to be confident that his side can ease their way past Iran, then Morocco, and so safely make their way to the knock-out stages.

How substantial a part the turmoil that engulfed his squad over the past few days played in the drama here was not immediately certain, although it probably encouraged their opponents to sweep forward during the opening stages. Uncertainty shown at key moments was clearly a huge factor in Portugal’s first two goals.

If the Spaniards were suffering after a bad week, though, they showed enormous character to come from behind twice, then push on for a well deserved lead. That they couldn’t hang on to it was largely down to just one man and there would not have been any prizes beforehand for guessing who that might end up being.

Nacho had done enough to hand Ronaldo a penalty just three minutes in, making a contact with his Real Madrid team-mate that was seized upon, then ruthlessly punished.

Spain Nacho Fernandez scores his side’s third goal in the World Cup Group B match against Portugal at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
Spain Nacho Fernandez scores his side’s third goal in the World Cup Group B match against Portugal at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

David de Gea then all but handed the Portuguese skipper his second as half-time approached with the Manchester United goalkeeper committing the sort of blunder we generally associate with lesser mortals playing on smaller stages.

Even as his side seemed steadily to lose their grip on the game, Ronaldo seemed characteristically determined to steal yet another show on the greatest stage the game of football has to offer.

Those Portuguese who believed that the 33 year-old might cart them all the way to Moscow in mid-July would have been have been encouraged by the first half and convinced perhaps by a second in which he testily continued to force a steady stream of free kicks. The last of those he converted spectacularly with a curling free that flew inches to the right of Sergio Busquets’s desperately flailing head and a foot inside the top of Spain’s right-hand post.

It was an astonishing end to a game Spain will surely feel that they should have won. After their early enterprise subsided, Portugal had been obliged to dig in for long spells and play a much more familiar game against a side that toyed with and teased them on and around the edge of their area.

The first of Spain’s three goals should have been ruled out for a foul by Diego Costa on Pepe – an early failure at this World Cup, it seemed, for VAR with the Italian referee having looked for a second opinion. But they were well worth their two after the break with Costa and then, far more spectacularly, Nacho, punished slipshod defending by a side with, whatever their opponents might like to think, an admirable record for doing rather better at the back.

The Portugal of a couple of years ago would have fancied themselves to hold on to one of their leads but they never looked secure here with Spain creating a succession of chances over the course of the game.

Isco thought he had scored when a shot clattered the underside of the crossbar and then bounced back out of the the line, while David Silva and occasionally Andres Iniesta got in among or behind a back four that creaked under the weight of the pressure.

Having played his way into the side with his performances in the pre-tournament friendlies, Goncalo Guedes may have played himself out of it again for the remaining group games here. Twice he was responsible for key counter attacks breaking down and Busquets easily got the better of him to head down the free that led to Costa’s second.

Hierro might at one point been weighing up Nacho’s status as first-choice right back but his goal was spectacular and the 28-year-old looked suitably overjoyed as he tore away to celebrate. Again, though, Portugal never have allowed him the opportunity.

For them, there might be faint echoes here of 2016, when they started with a draw then doggedly edged their way to the title. This time there is not anything like the same room to manoeuvre that they enjoyed on that occasion and Fernando Santos might feel the need to shake up the supporting cast again before the game against Morocco.

The Spanish, meanwhile, have avoided defeat by their greatest group rivals at the end of a tumultuous 72 hours and will feel they have more in them than they showed here. Costa, like Ronaldo, looked like a man who has arrived believing he can have a big tournament and Hierro will be happy with balance struck in a midfield which dominated for long spells.

Defensively, they too will have to improve if they are to be still around and in serious contention for the business end of the competition. Other sides will punish them too if they carelessly concede fouls the way they did here. But they should have time enough to settle back into their stride and work on their few shortcomings, safe in the knowledge that while may well be better sides here in Russia than this Portugal one, none contains an individual capable of more damage on his own.

PORTUGAL (4-4-2): Rui Patricio; Cedric, Pepe, Fonte, Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva (Quaresma, 69 mins), Moutinho, William, Bruno Fernandes (Joao Mario, 68 mins); Guedes (A Silva, 80 mins), Ronaldo.

SPAIN (4-3-2-1): De Gea; Nacho, Pique, Ramos, Alba; Koke, Busquets, Iniesta (Thiago, 70 mins); Silva (Lucas, 86mins), Isco; Costa (Aspas, 77 mins),

Referee: G Rocchi (Italy).

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