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Ronaldo the individual no match for Germany’s collective might

World Player of the Year’s superpowers deserted him on a bad day out

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo during their 2014 World Cup Group G defeat to Germany at the Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador. Photograph: Jorge Silva / Reuters

The first round of matches at this World Cup has been a huge success, not least because this time, so many of the headline acts have delivered.

Neymar set the tone with two goals for Brazil on the opening night, and the trend continued on Friday with the brilliance of Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben for Holland against Spain.

Andrea Pirlo pulled off that dummy against England, Karim Benzema was terrific for France against Honduras, and in the 65th minute of Argentina’s game against Bosnia, the real Lionel Messi finally turned up at the World Cup with a sensational dribble and finish.

In each case, these great players were at the head of a team effort.

Messi, for instance, struggled badly in the first half against Bosnia until Alejandro Sabella reshaped the Argentina team with two substitutions at half-time. The changes gave Messi options around him in possession, and his goal came after he exchanged quick passes with Di Maria and Higuain. Even he can’t do it all by himself.

Cristiano Ronaldo has always been an individualist who arguably likes to give the impression he has done it by himself – most recently with that solipsistic celebration of his actually rather unimportant goal at the end of the Champions League final. In Salvador, the World Player of the Year would come up against one of the best-organised teams in the tournament.

As an individual, Ronaldo towers over any German player. They know just how good he is: eight of their starting team yesterday play for clubs he had thrashed on the way to winning this season’s Champions League.

Ronaldo’s status was underlined as the stadium announcer read out the teams during the warm-up. The cheer that greeted his name sounded almost as though a goal had been scored. Ronaldo acknowledged the acclaim as he headed back down the tunnel by peeling off his shirt and throwing it to the fans. Could he deliver a performance worthy of the hype?

Ronaldo was nominally Portugal’s left-winger, but he has a very different interpretation of the role from, for instance, the one Wayne Rooney produced on Saturday night. Whereas Rooney ran to get back behind the ball whenever England lost possession, Ronaldo simply walks back, observing the play from behind enemy lines. The only reason he moved back at all was to shorten the distances his team-mates needed to pass to him if they won possession back. The idea was to conserve energy for his sprints forward.

The first few minutes were promising. First Ronaldo tore away from three German markers and played in Almeida, but the Besiktas forward shot weakly at the keeper from the sort of position where Ronaldo would probably have scored. The sprints Ronaldo produced in these early exchanges suggested he had overcome the tendonitis that had threatened to keep him out of the match.

Fell apart

Eleven minutes in, it fell apart. From his position on the left wing, Ronaldo had a good view as Mario Götze wriggled past João Pereira and went down after what the referee considered to be an illegal tug from the Portugal right-back. The Portugal players protested furiously to the referee – or at least Pereira, Pepe and Coentrao did. Ronaldo, the captain, stood back and watched. After the referee had dealt with the protests, Thomas Müller scored the penalty.

Three minutes later, Hugo Almeida, playing the same role that Niall Quinn used to have in the Irish team, knocked a cross back into the path of Ronaldo, who turned a defender on the edge of the box, then miskicked. Nobody knew it then, but he had just missed his best chance.

Mats Hummels out-jumped Pepe to make it 2-0 on 32 minutes, and maybe that was the reason why Pepe exploded with anger when Thomas Müller exaggerated contact five minutes later. The choleric Real Madrid centre-back ran over and made as though to headbutt Müller as he sat on the ground. The referee produced the red card.

Again the captain stood and watched his team-mates argue with the referee from a distance, then walked away with his head bowed. He knew that likely defeat had just become certain disgrace. Nine minutes later Germany made it 3-0 – Müller again – and Ronaldo was over speaking to the Portugal bench before the restart, having taken off his captain’s armband. Was the World Player of the Year about to bail out on his team-mates at half-time?

Those fears proved unfounded, as Ronaldo reappeared from the second half to walk about at the front of his team and observe the classy German display. Müller completed a hat-trick which will hurt Ronaldo’s prospects of achieving what is probably his main personal goal at this tournament: winning the Golden Boot for top scorer. In the end, Portugal escaped with a 4-0 defeat only because Germany eased off.

Ronaldo’s most visible intervention in that second half was a wild, arm-waving pursuit of the referee after Höwedes appeared to bring down Eder. Otherwise, the star’s involvement in the second half was confined to a series of free-kicks from long distance. For the second one, Germany erected a one-man wall, and Ronaldo promptly hit it. Portugal’s team had disintegrated, and Ronaldo’s superpowers had deserted him.

The whistle went soon after, and after concluding the tedious formalities of Fifa’s “Handshake for Peace” in the centre-circle, Ronaldo was one of the first Portuguese players to make his way down the tunnel to the dressing room.

This time, he kept the shirt on.