Ronaldo: The gift and the curse for Portugal
With a minute remaining, Portugal were heading out of the World Cup. A thriller in Manaus was drawing to its climax and the USA were 2-1 up, having themselves battled back from a goal down to take the lead through Clint Dempsey's 82nd-minute strike.
However, Cristiano Ronaldo's 94th-minute, brilliant cross was headed in by Silvestre Varela, like a thundering punch to the USA's stomach, and Portugal live to fight another day. Though their chances of advancing remain slim, they are at least not zero, with a game to play against Ghana and a three-point gap from the top two. Here's how it panned out.
Both teams had made enforced changes to their line-ups before the game. Jozy Altidore was missing for America, replaced by Graham Zusi in a more conservative formation that saw Clint Dempsey as the lone front-man. For Portugal, Rui Patricio, desperate in the 4-0 thrashing by Germany, was injured and replaced by Beto, while Andre Almeida, Ricardo Costa and Hugo Almeida came in for Pepe (suspended), Hugo Almeida and Fabio Coentrao (both injured).
Portugal took the lead inside five minutes. The move started from an Alejandro Bedoya mistake in Portugal's half. Ronaldo received possession and brought the house down with the move of the match, three brilliant pivot turns that bamboozled USA's onlookers in midfield and drove the crowd wild.
From there the move built and a low cross from Miguel Veloso that should have been cleared by Stoke's Geoff Cameron was instead sliced straight to Nani who faked before shooting, forcing Tim Howard to go down, and slammed the ball home. 1-0 and a great start for Portugal who began with a very good tempo and three times the number of passes to USA.
In the 13th minute, USA managed their first decent effort of the match; Dempsey firing just over from a long range free-kick. USA were focusing their play down the left hand side, but Fabian Johnson was taking up the most advanced position down their right.
Just like in their first game, Portugal’s main striker got injured early. Where it was Hugo Almeida against Germany, this time Helder Postiga hobbled off, and Eder once again got his chance in attack.
USA were carving the occasional opening amid Portugal's early possession, and in the 17th minute another Dempsey effort forced a good save from Portugal keeper Beto. Despite this, there was more than 20 yards between Dempsey and USA's next two furthest forward players, leaving him relatively isolated.
This was a common theme early on as Jurgen Klinsmann's side started conservatively. They were relying on long passes from deep up towards Dempsey, but failing to really support him in the final third.
Brilliant early skill aside, Ronaldo was struggling to get involved in the match, with question marks over his fitness still lingering. Meanwhile, Dempsey was showing early promise, carving 2 efforts on goal.
In the 27th minute Dempsey had another shot, blocked superbly well by Ricardo Costa. USA were starting to have joy down Portugal’s right hand side. Ronaldo, a man who always wants the ball, decided he'd had enough of his left flank and wandered off infield to grab a slice of the action. This tactical indiscipline would be a key factor in the game, opening up wide spaces down Almeida’s channel on the left.
The knock-on effect of this was two-fold. Not only did it leave Almeida exposed, it made Raul Meireles’ job in midfield much harder. Should he drift out to protect the channel and leave space through the middle? Or stay central and leave Almeida isolated? USA took advantage of this and had joy with long diagonals into that channel, a recurring theme as the game went on.
The heat in Manaus slowed the pace at times, but it was an open affair. A water break was needed. Veloso was dictating play in midfield with some good passing and defensive work, but he looked tired at times, jogging around as though the stifling heat was getting to him.
Portugal nearly went in for the break 2-0 up. Nani, the definition of a confidence player, slapped a long range effort off the post. Howard was left stranded, but recovered brilliantly to tip Eder’s rebound effort over the bar for a corner, which was headed clear.
The first half, in summary, was relatively even. Possession was even, passes were virtually even and shots were even too. Michael Bradley and Joao Moutinho were the game's top two passers, Veloso the most accurate with 33/33 completed. Nani and Ronaldo were having strange games, central to the match but simultaneously on the periphery.
In the second half Portugal coach Paulo Bento made a change, injured left-back Almeida coming off for central midfielder William Carvalho and Veloso moving to play on the left. Veloso seemed a strange choice at left-back but Portugal were out of options. Rather than stem the flow of attacks down that side, it encouraged them.
USA had a fine chance in the 56th minute: Johnson found himself in space, broke down the right after receiving a clever pass from Jermaine Jones, cut the ball back to Bradley but Bradley's shot was blocked exceptionally on the line by Costa. A goal-saving intervention from the defender. Outstanding.
Fabian Johnson was having a good game for USA down the right, with Jones playing him in regularly.
In the 64th minute, USA equalised. A quality hit by Jones from a USA corner; he’d been their best player, both combative in midfield and intelligent enough to take advantage of Portugal's weakness down the left by passing constantly to Johnson down USA's right. Ronaldo and Nani were floating out of the game.
Dempsey was too. But then, out of nowhere, he scored. Substitute DeAndre Yedlin found space down the right (again) and chaos reigned in the box as his ball in was deflected and rebounded all over the shop. Eventually it found Zusi, who squared to Dempsey for a tap-in. USA were 2-1 up in the 82nd minute and Bento's tactics looked to be sending Portugal home. All USA's chances had been created down the right, with Ronaldo's wandering costing his side.
Ronaldo was proving to be the gift and the curse for Portugal, his wandering completely unbalancing the side tactically and leaving acres of space down the right which USA eventually realised, capitalised on and punished. Would his brilliance be able to balance out the scales?
The answer was yes. For what Ronaldo lacks in defensive application, he makes up for with world-class talent. Deep into injury-time, with USA failing to keep the ball in safe areas and see the game out, Ronaldo bent an exceptional ball in from the right hand side, a perfect cross for substiture Silvestre Varela to head home.
Geoff Cameron’s marking might have been better but it was a magnificent cross and a well-taken header by Varela. 2-2 - the last kick of the game. Portugal's crossing generally had been far better than USA's and it determined the game's outcome in dramatic style.
At the final whistle, USA’s players looked distraught. Jurgen Klinsmann shook his head in disbelief. Head down, Ronaldo strolled off down the tunnel dissatisfied. Both Portugal’s gift and curse, tactically this match, for better or worse, was all about him. And, you sense, that’s just the way Ronaldo likes it.
Facts and figures
- USA have still not won 2 World Cup games in a row since their opening 2 matches in the inaugural tournament in 1930.
- Cristiano Ronaldo had 7 shots but only 1 was on target.
- USA had more shots (9) in the first half in this game than in the whole of their match with Ghana (8).
- USA have scored in 8 successive World Cup games, their best run since their opening eight matches (1930-1990).
- Clint Dempsey has now scored in 3 of his last 4 appearances for the USA.
- 7 of USA’s last 8 World Cup goals have come after half-time.
- Portugal have won only 1 of their last 9 World Cup games (D4 L4).
- USA have conceded in each of their last 15 World Cup games against European opposition.