BRASILIA – Cristiano Ronaldo: man of the match here, man of the hour in the United States.
The Portugal superstar's clutch goal late in his nation's game against Ghana helped the Americans avoid elimination and helped a lot of U.S. fans breathe easier during a tense final day for the Group of Death.
The U.S. lost 1-0 against Germany in Recife, but Portugal's 2-1 win pushed Team USA through to the knockout stage. Ronaldo broke a tie that had put the U.S. in a dicey position: Just one more Ghanaian goal would've sent the African nation through to the round of 16 instead. The dueling matches made for a nervy final 45 minutes for the U.S.
But Ronaldo gave Team USA all the cushion it needed in the 79th minute by corralling a goalie deflection in the box and rocketing a shot into the bottom right corner of the net.
It was perhaps fitting that Ronaldo aided the U.S.'s efforts, since he also delivered the cross that resulted in Portugal tying the Americans in the closing seconds of their match on Sunday. The 2-2 draw in that game forestalled the U.S. team's bid for the round of 16, and led to Thursday's tough spot.
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Ronaldo was brilliant throughout this match, flying up the pitch almost from the opening kickoff. He showed little of the effects from his severe right knee injury, playing with a noticeable bandage yet striking shot after shot with power and accuracy. In the first 10 minutes, he sent a blistering drive off the crossbar; it was a sign of things to come.
Ronaldo and Portugal owned the play in the first half, as Ghana looked very sluggish without two of their top players in Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, who were suspended by their coach for disciplinary reasons. (Muntari wouldn't have played anyways due to yellow card accumulation.)
Ghana, who allowed an own goal off the foot of John Boye and nearly allowed another several moments later, came roaring out of the intermission with Asamoah Gyan's goal, but was unable to find the net again the rest of the match.
The Americans are now through Death's door, surviving a very tough group assignment. They are scheduled to play again on Tuesday, likely against Belgium in Salvador.
The day is disappointing for Ronaldo and his team, who are eliminated and returning back across the Atlantic after coming in as favorites to accompany Germany to the next round, but Portugal's hero certainly showed up in a memorable way both for his team and for the Americans who struggled in the downpour along the coast.
Ronaldo appeared briefly after the game, walking slowly and gingerly into the press center to accept his man of the match award. He wore shorts that revealed a bandage even larger than the one he had on during play. Ronaldo said little on the dais, making one statement and taking no questions. "We deserved more," he said. "We did our best."
He certainly did his best, lifting his team to a draw against the U.S. followed by a victory here after the opening match drubbing by the Germans. Ronaldo's reputation as a world-class talent is intact, even though his World Cup legacy still needs a run to the later rounds.
Meanwhile, he's a bit of a hero back in the States. It has been said that the U.S. lacks a superstar scorer. But the Americans had one on their side when it mattered most on Thursday.