A happier evening for Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. Four nights after missing a penalty in the disappointing defeat at home to Bulgaria, the Real Madrid forward turned in a captain’s performance as Fernando Santos’ side beat Belgium. It was much, much better.
Portugal and Belgium were supposed to be playing this friendly fixture in Brussels, but the match was switched to Leiria after the horrific attacks last Tuesday. And amid tight security and a strong police presence, the sleepy surroundings of this small town two hours north of Lisbon seemed ideal.
Leiria’s stadium was built for Euro 2004 and holds a little over 22,000. It was not full for this match, but came close to capacity as fans arrived late. After an impeccably observed minute’s silence to honour those who lost their lives in Brussels, the game started slowly. So tepid was the atmosphere, in fact, that the players could be heard shouting to each other on the pitch.
But then Cristiano intervened. Ronaldo is the big star in this team and some sublime skill on the edge of the box brought fans to their feet. The atmosphere immediately went up a notch and Portugal grew in stature, their captain then heading against the bar from a corner after 13 minutes.
And after Nani gave Portugal the lead on 20 minutes, it looked like Ronaldo had set up a second when he advanced with pace down the left and squared for Joao Mario in space, but the Sporting midfielder dallied and the chance was lost as he was driven wide by Belgium’s defence.
Ronaldo then headed home after 40 minutes from a Joao Mario cross to put Portugal 2-0 up against a Belgium side ranked number 1 in the world by Fifa, albeit without Toby Alderweireld, Vicent Kompany, Jan Verthongen, Moussa Dembele, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in their starting line-up.
Ronaldo remained a threat late in the first half as he blasted a fierce effort over the bar and also came close just after the break before he was substituted on the hour mark, his thoughts turning to Madrid’s Clasico clash against Barcelona at Camp Nou this weekend.
And little more than a minute after his departure, Belgium pulled a goal back through Romelu Lukaku. Neverheless, the visitors never looked likely to dampen the mood further for the Portuguese fans inside the Dr. Magalhaes Pessoa stadium.
As has happened so often over the years, Portugal played their best football with Ronaldo on the pitch. At 31, the Madrid forward may be slightly past his physical peak, but his star quality always gives them a chance.
In a squad still featuring players such as Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and Ricardo Carvalho, Ronaldo’s importance remains huge. This is an ageing team still struggling to create chances and without a recognised centre-forward to fit in alongside the three-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Cristiano is more of a predator these days and can play that position, even though he has often said it is not his favoured role. Back among the goals for his country (he now has 56) for the first time since last June, this was a captain’s performance at a time when Portugal needed inspiration.
So while it may have been an under-strength Belgium XI, Ronaldo gives Portugal a glimmer of hope at Euro 2016 this summer. It may be a last chance for this team – and this player – to compete for a title at international level. With Cristiano on form, you never know.
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