Cristiano Ronaldo needed help. A lot of it, as it turned out.
The five-time world player of the year emerged from the tunnel first, leading his Portugal out for warmups. He seemingly sang the anthem the loudest, and with the most gusto, almost conducting his teammates, lined up beside him. If he hadn’t slept well, after Iran fans had apparently succeeded in keeping him awake deep into the night, it didn’t show.
This is Cristiano Ronaldo’s team.
You might even say he is the team.
This latter-day incarnation of Portugal, the defending European champion, is desperately old in key positions. Central defenders Pepe and Jose Fonte are 35 and 34, respectively. And up front, Ricardo Quaresma is 34 and even the seemingly ageless Ronaldo is now 33. More acutely, the younger players all have largely failed to live up to their abundant promise. Meaning this team somehow both basks in old glories and underperforms disappointingly. On an individual level anyway.
Because on the whole, Portugal keeps delivering. Somehow, it all still functions.
Because it has Ronaldo, who practically dragged the Portuguese to victory at Euro 2016, in spite of its many and obvious deficiencies. On many days, it’s felt like those red jerseys contained Ronaldo and 10 warm bodies drummed up outside the stadium just before the game.
Portugal has Ronaldo and for as long as that’s true, it will be competitive. Going into Monday’s final World Cup group stage game against a feisty Iran, Ronaldo had scored a hat trick to secure an unexpected 3-3 tie with Spain and got the only goal against Morocco in a 1-0 victory.
If Ronaldo were a country, he would have had just as many goals and points as Portugal did.
But in a 1-1 tie with Iran, Portugal advanced to the knockout rounds not because of Ronaldo, but perhaps even in spite of him, after he missed a penalty and should probably have been sent off.
At long last, the scoring load was carried by someone else, the brilliant but infuriatingly inconsistent Quaresma. His transcendent first-half strike ensured that Portugal survived. Although Iran’s injury-time penalty kick by Karim Ansarifard meant that Portugal gave away first place in Group B. As such, it was cast into a round-of-16 date with Uruguay in the tougher half of the bracket. The punishment for Portugal’s poor performance, then, will be severe.
Iran made an unapologetically bold start against the favorites, hoping to snatch an early goal. It didn’t get one and quickly began sitting deep, as it has any time it’s accomplished anything at all. But while defending is Team Melli’s signature characteristic, it also looked fragile in the back.
Goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand fumbled a simple ball early on. And then a miscommunication with his defense resulted in a fat chance for the Portuguese. In the ninth minute, William Carvalho swung a ball into the box, but Beiranvand got his signals mixed up with Saeid Ezatolahi. They wound up getting in one another’s way as the ball bounced out for Joao Mario. But he half-volleyed the open shot over from the edge of the box. There was a lot of shoving among the Iranians after that.
Ronaldo huffed and puffed, but Iran would not bend. In the 16th minute, his long free kick was deflected over by an Iranian arm in the wall, in the penalty area, but referee Enrique Caceres was not interested. It would not be the last time that he would feature in an admittedly tricky game.
Before halftime, Quaresma summoned the magic that has made him such a confounding kind of star. For all his failures, he’s capable of scoring the kind of stupendous goal that would net Portugal the point it needed. He cut inside from the right flank on a nice combination and poked the ball into the upper-90 with the outside of his right foot.
OH MY, Quaresma!
The 34-year-old rewards his manager with a beautiful outside-of-the-foot shot that finds the upper corner. pic.twitter.com/wmhTCm7X8y
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 25, 2018
Shortly after the break, Ezatolahi knocked Ronaldo down in the box. Upon VAR review, it was finally and rightly called. Just then, it seemed like Caceres would lose control of the game, failing to keep the incensed Iranians in check as he did.
They were all over Ronaldo as well. And, sure enough, they seemed to have gotten to him – if the late-night partiers outside his hotel room window hadn’t already. Uncharacteristically, he put his spot kick too close to the goalkeeper and Beiranvand saved.
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) June 25, 2018
That buoyed the Iranians, who had a chance snuffed out by a crucial Pepe interception. And after Ronaldo tried some more to finally put the game away – smashing his finish wide after dribbling through a pack of defenders outside the box – Iran was denied a credible penalty as Caceres refused the help from VAR.
It was arguably also robbed of Ronaldo’s sending off. Plainly frustrated, he wrestled with Morteza Pouraliganji as the ball skipped into the open field. As Ronaldo fought him off, he clearly elbowed Pouraliganji in the chin. He went down as if he’d been shot, of course, but by the letter of the rulebook, that should have gotten Portugal’s captain sent off all the same.
Caceres consulted VAR and somehow settled on a yellow card for Ronaldo, who shook his head in disagreement, never mind that he’d been spared his rightful punishment.
But in injury time, things got even more tense. Cedric’s arm grazed the ball in Portugal’s box. Caceres, after endless delay, consulted VAR and awarded a penalty. Ansarifard stuck it away perfectly.
Iran equalizes from the spot!
Can they get another in stoppage time to shock Portugal?? pic.twitter.com/WiV5fHO4Hf
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 25, 2018
Then Mehdi Taremi had a terrific look for the winner but poked it into the side netting from close range.
Iran ran out of time. And its tears were abundant. It had a right to feel aggrieved. Because it had managed not to be beaten by Ronaldo. Instead, it was undone by a world-class goal from Quaresma, and perhaps Caceres, conspiring to eliminate them from the 2018 World Cup.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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