Mr Longevity! Ronaldo lights up Nations League finals with more records in sight
The captain scored a glorious hat-trick as Portugal set up a mouth-watering UEFA Nations League final clash against either England or the Netherlands.
If you’re wondering what these UEFA Nations League Finals are all about, well, wonder no more. They are about Cristiano Ronaldo.
That might well be an exaggeration but it’s only a slight one.
A Portugal side struggling for inspiration from open play have their talisman to thank for their place in the final back here in the Estadio do Dragao on Sunday.
It was a hat-trick of the highest order for Ronaldo which settled things, featuring all kinds of goals. There was a deadly free-kick, a one-touch finish from inside the box and, finally, the one they thought he didn’t have in his locker any more.
Manuel Akanji might well have been just a boy the first time Ronaldo galloped down the left channel, stepped over the ball and found the far corner. But tonight the young Switzerland centre-back got the 3D view and he didn’t need a VR headset.
Portugal will now play either England or the Netherlands in the first-ever Nations League final.
It had been a quiet year in the international realm for Ronaldo, having taken six matches off following the World Cup before returning for two goalless Euro 2020 qualification matches against Ukraine and Serbia.
In truth, Portugal are struggling there, with only two points from two matches, but Ronaldo is in resurgent form now in international colours. There won’t be many backing against him to add to his international honours list with a maiden Nations League win on Sunday.
It’s a shame that Ronaldo hasn’t had – relatively speaking – many games alongside Bernardo Silva with Portugal. Now that he has moved to a full-time forward position, he enjoys impeccable service from the Manchester City playmaker, who operates as one of a small number of genuine No.10s in world football.
He was given the slot in the team just behind Ronaldo and young Benfica sensation Joao Felix. The 19-year-old might as well play this tournament as a kind of work experience, and just learn from the man in the strike line beside him.
Ronaldo fluffed one early chance off a Bernardo through ball but that dud effort would not be repeated. He jinked past two Swiss challenges before being upended by Kevin Mbabu at the edge of the area.
The Juventus man may well have been getting jealous of watching Lionel Messi fire in free-kick after free-kick this season and took it upon himself to even things up.
Yann Sommer’s positioning was suspect, but the finish was world class.
He then threw in a glorious nutmeg on Mbabu before rounding off the first half with a sumptuous no-look through ball that Ronaldinho would be proud of. Alas, Joao Felix just couldn’t finish.
If there is a downside for Portugal it is the number of chances they are giving up. Xherdan Shaqiri and Haris Seferovic – no popular figure in these parts due to his association with Benfica – both had good opportunities and Switzerland repeatedly found ways to put the back four under pressure.
They were level in the second half following the exact kind of VAR incident that FIFA must have hoped would never happen. Up one end, Nelson Semedo and Steven Zuber came together inside the area, which had the Swiss bench calling for a penalty.
Felix Brych told them to get on with it and down the other end, Bernardo Silva was cleaned out by Fabian Schar. That penalty was awarded but while Ronaldo had the ball in his hands – waiting to slot home number two – Brych reviewed the Swiss penalty incident and decided to give it.
The home fans whistled through the review and chanted Ronaldo’s name but to no avail. Ricardo Rodriguez stood up to level.
But Ronaldo was not done. The game seemed to be meandering towards extra time before Wolvesmidfielder Ruben Neves spotted Bernardo Silva wide on the right and found him with a top-quality pass. In came the cross and Ronaldo didn’t need any more than a single touch to rifle the ball inside Sommer’s near post.
Before the big screens inside the stadium had done with the replays, Ronaldo had netted again in vintage fashion.
Switzerland’s Nations League Finals are over before they begin while Ronaldo goes in search of a second international title.
And then? Who knows.
Ronaldo is a known target setter and there are still a couple in the international arena in his sights. He and Messi have obliterated almost every record at club level between them but there is still room for improvement on the international front.
The Nations League semi-final against Switzerland marked game 157 for Portugal and goals 86, 87 and 88. Those numbers are incredible and with each appearance and each goal he edges towards more immortality.
For one, there is the all-time international appearance record of Ahmed Hassan of Egypt. He retired in 2012 on 184 caps. If Ronaldo can stay fit through the rest of Euro qualification, the finals themselves – assuming Portugal qualify – plus the qualification phase for the 2022 World Cup finals as well as the games in Qatar then he should easily get there. And the way he looks after himself, staying fit shouldn’t be an issue.
From those matches he would require 12 goals to hit the landmark of 100. He’s already in second place behind Iran’s Ali Daei, whose 109 might appear just out of reach.
But Ronaldo’s been averaging around a goal a game at international level for the past three seasons.
You wouldn’t back against him.