Increasingly, words to describe Cristiano Ronaldo are decreasing. The man demands that moments be defined by him. He is the epitome of the colossal game player and in the biggest game of the World Cup so far, he was colossus.
In three previous World Cups, Ronaldo had scored three goals. He doubled that tally with his hat-trick against Spain. From the first minute to the last, he buzzed.
Most poignant was that free kick in the dying minutes. The ritualistic preparation to take large strides, heaving breaths and focused concentration. The Spanish wall jumping, with Sergio Busquets arching his neck, hoping to prolong it in Mr. Fantastic fashion so as to prevent the ball from going past. Unsuccessfully. David De Gea unsighted. The ball nestling in the back of the net. The point saved.
The World Cup a stage…
And Spain also played their part. Shenanigans that surrounded the sacking of their manager, Julen Lopetegui, did not rock this team in the manner expected. The genius of Ronaldo aside, Spain made mistakes unrelated to the wills of a man on the touchline.
Jose Nacho’s inexperience in dangling a foot at the trickery of Ronaldo, and the blunder commonly not associated with De Gea mean that even Lopetegui would not have been in a position to stop Portugal’s goals.
Instead, Spain showed character and resilience, coming back twice from behind and the build up to the goal that gave them a 3-2 lead was as delicious as Nacho’s wallop on the half-volley. In the midst of all that, Spain played some sumptuous football and had the luxury of bringing dynamism from their bench.
This Spanish side will go some distance in this tournament, although the whole distance still seems a journey too far.
Earlier in the day….
Late goals are all that separated North African teams from their opponents.
Egypt played well in the absence of Mohamed Salah, but rarely got to trouble Fernando Muslera’s goal. The Uruguyans were solidly led by a central defensive pairing that has spent the whole season keeping clean sheets at Atletico Madrid.
Disappointingly for Uruguay was that Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez did not look at their threatening best. It adds all the more to Ronaldo’s magic the fact that the Real Madrid man showed up for his country, while the two failed to do so for Uruguay.
Also disappointing was that the group of youthful talent — Nahitan Nandez, Matias Vecino and Giorgian de Arrascaeta — went missing for huge parts of the game and the remedy saw the wise old Oscar Tabarez call on experience from the bench in the form of Carlos Sanchez and Cristian Rodriguez.
In the end though, it was Jose Gimenez who towered above Ahmed Hegazy (and interestingly, in front of his captain, Diego Godin) to make Salah slump in his chair on the bench.
Morocco on the other hand flattered to deceive with an impressive start that fizzled out. Hakim Ziyech showed in patches why he is a talent, Amine Harit was lively but the Atlas Lions were characterised by poor finishing.
For Iran, the decision making was not that crisp even though as the game wore on they retreated to a defensive capsule. The own goal at the end was probably not deserved, but if you do not concede, you cannot lose.
Limping off the park
The injury counter is accumulating. So far, we have seen Alan Dzagoev (Russia), Tarek Hamed (Egypt), Nordin Amrabat (Morocco), Omid Ebrahimi and Alireza Jahanbakhksh (both Iran) leave the field due to injury. Salah did not even get to play, the reasons why known. After a long season, it seems the physical boundaries are being stretched.
Uruguay and Portugal both played a 4-4-2 with differing levels of success.
Uruguay’s was outnumbered by the numbers in Egypt’s midfield. Hamed was especially lively for the Pharaohs alongside a sitting Mohamed Elneny with Abdallah El-Said supporting them in the midfield. This posed a problem for Uruguay who’d started with Vecino and Rodrigo Bentancur in the center of the park (Nandez and de Arrascaeta were wide). This left Cavani and Suarez isolated from the rest of the team.
When the changes were made, it was notbale how Sanchez moved in field to support his two holders and add to the numerical battle.
Portugal could probably have faced the same dilemma, but instead had Ronaldo peeling off from his center forward position and dropping in to help in midfield. In as much as Spain dominated the ball, they lacked space in dangerous areas.
- Full backs
The World Cup is lacking genuine playmakers in the traditional number 10 role (Mesut Ozil, James Rodriguez and Phillipe Coutinho are a dying breed).
It therefore seems as if full backs will play a significant role. Wingers will probably tuck in to overload in midfield meaning full backs will have space out wide. The crossing however must be better if goals are to be scored in this way.
- Set-piece goals
Four World Cup games, six set-piece goals (seven, if you count Ronaldo’s penalty a set-piece). This will also be a trend, armoured with the fact that the sort of defensive coordination drilling required to defend set-pieces is lacking at international level. National team oaches do not have that much time with their players as club facilitators do.