It took only four minutes for Cristiano Ronaldo to open his goalscoring account at this year’s World Cup – from the penalty spot – during an enthralling affair as two European heavyweights went head-to-head in their maiden Group B clash.
Pre-match build-up justified during entertaining affair
There was plenty to cover in pre-match storylines across the world, with various column inches and pieces being written regarding Spain’s surprise dismissal of Real Madrid-bound Julen Lopetegui, just days before the tournament began this week.
Portugal themselves were not without controversy of their own, as four players find themselves currently embroiled in a scandal with Sporting Lisbon – where they’re working to secure release from their contracts and find pastures new, undoubtedly an expensive loss. Among them were defensive-midfielder William Carvalho and first-choice goalkeeper Rui Patricio, who was making his 70th international cap here.
Costa scores fantastic leveller after slow start
Despite the 30-year-old’s best efforts, Patricio ultimately found himself helpless to thwart Diego Costa’s thunderous effort from rifling into the bottom corner with aplomb. Costa, who endured a difficult year at club level for various reasons, levelled the scoring after 24 minutes in typical fashion for the centre-forward – bullying those who dared to block his path.
Shrugging off a poorly-timed Pepe challenge, leaving the Besiktas centre-back to writhe on the turf, he then proceeded to send Jose Fonte one way then another with an explosive burst of individual brilliance which proved too much for the former Southampton defender to contend against.
All of this occurred in a matter of moments, from the edge to inside the box – where he let fly and made no mistake with a well-struck effort. His finish was all the more impressive given that he’d embarked on a surging run forward, 60 yards goalwards, after being set through by Sergio Busquets.
Less than half an hour played and the scores were level, but for how long? Spain started slowly and were made to pay for that, as Nacho Fernandez learned first hand. Naive to leave his outstretched leg hanging with Ronaldo bearing down on him, the centre-back could only watch and grimace in frustration as his club team-mate wheeled away to celebrate the opener.
Spain start to assert themselves, grow in confidence
However as time wore on, their confidence grew and there were a number of excellent passing exchanges which should have led to a goal. David Silva and Isco in particular were interchanging positions frequently, meaning the pair were a handful for Portugal to isolate.
This also allowed Iniesta freedom to roam forward as their creator-in-chief and do so with the composure, poise and precision we’re used to seeing at Barcelona. With performances like these, new side Vissel Kobe will be happy knowing he’s still got years left to run in the efficient engine of his.
Isco watched in agony as his thunderous strike crashed off the crossbar, just two minutes after Costa’s finish. Iniesta could have got himself on the scoresheet too before the interval as Spain were effectively displaying their dominance.
Until, Ronaldo had another say. Frustrated by his teammates’ inability to provide accurate and quality service into his path, he wanted to go it alone – no-one could really begrudge him for that.
de Gea’s costly mistake, at the worst time possible
Having been teed up by Goncalo Guedes on the edge of the area, his effort was drilled hard and low but de Gea was expected to smother it easily. Widely regarded as one of the world’s best goalkeepers, he spilled the strike and could only watch it trickle beyond him to provide a hammer blow at exactly the wrong time for Fernando Hierro and his side going into the break.
Ronaldo, nor his Portugal teammates cared. Despite having to struggle for sustained periods, they found themselves a goal ahead at the interval and were buoyed by their talisman’s efforts.
It wouldn’t last long. A quick-fire double, in the space of three minutes, saw Spain take the lead for the first time and flip the game on its head completely. A well-worked in-swinging free-kick was headed into the path of an unmarked Costa, to tap home from close-range and complete his brace for the evening.
Nacho, still frustrated about his part in Ronaldo’s first goal, redeemed himself with a sumptuous strike which cannoned in off the far post. Sweetly struck on the volley, Patricio again had no chance.
Substitutions and late opportunities
Portugal were stunned and rightly so, forcing manager Fernando Santos into a double substitution as Ricardo Quaresma and Joao Mario came on in place of Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes.
Iniesta was replaced by Thiago with 20 minutes to play, as La Roja were keen to maintain their advantage but equally the addition of fresh legs and further creative impetus are never a bad thing.
Costa’s final big chance to seal his hat-trick was crucially squandered minutes later, after being played through by Jordi Alba inside the box.
Ronaldo has the final say, yet again
So who else but Ronaldo to have the final say on proceedings then? Gerard Pique committed a clumsy, needless tackle around 25 yards outside the box. Time was ticking down and it was now or never for Portugal, if they were to snatch a late equaliser.
Ronaldo, who has a reputation for free-kicks – both excellent and equally frustrating – was always going to take this one. The commentator almost goaded Cristiano into trying an audacious effort, attempting to lift it over the wall and back down again in one motion towards de Gea’s far corner. Well, that’s exactly what he did.
It was beautiful, devastating and typical all in one: the man that Portugal rely upon stepped up once more when they needed him most. He roared with delight, you could tell just how much it meant to him but naturally, how long will it last? They’ve got winnable fixtures to finish Group B against Morocco and Iran but, provided they progress, how and where do they go from there?