Monday, June 21, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: June 22, 12:11 PM UK
Ronaldo reigns supreme
The match began in cold and wet conditions, the temperature hovering at 12 degrees, but the contest on the pitch - with both sides committed to attack - produced enough heat to warm the most rigid of pessimists. As the rain stopped and the sun emerged through the grey, a shower of a different kind broke out. Portugal, enjoying the relative warmth, restored footballing order; after spurning half a dozen chances in the first half, they scored half a dozen goals in the second and could have had more.
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North Korea were beaten, indeed battered, but not embarrassed. It takes two teams to produce a game as thrilling as this and if the scoreline was heavily one-sided it was partly because North Korea retained until the end their attacking plan - though abandoning any defensive formation and playing instead with a certain naivety. Had they parked the bus in the middle of the field, as had been feared, things might have been different.
Might. Because it would have taken more than a bus parked in midfield to stop Cristiano Ronaldo in arguably his most commanding performance on such a big stage. He has long been accused of not delivering in the biggest of matches - witness the 2009 Champions League final - but he ended the debate emphatically on Monday.
He notched up more shots on goal than the entire North Korean team and roamed the pitch creating chances for others. Beginning the game on the left, he sashayed across the park right through the second half, spraying passes in all directions. Constantly demanding the ball, even in the tightest of areas, he was rarely profligate with his passing. Shedding the sulks and shrugs, the pouts and protests, he played the part of leader to perfection - even suggesting that the man of the match award should have gone to two-goal Tiago.
From before the start, when you saw him smiling during the national anthem, you sensed it was going to be his day. On Sunday, asked by a female reporter when he would score, he had one word: "tomorrow", and followed it up with a wink. He kept his word and, though his goal was the sixth, he had a hand in most of the others and kept the pressure on North Korea so that they wilted.
He began early, with a surging run in the third minute that ended in a powerful shot that was well saved. One of his last touches, with his team already seven up, was a beautiful reverse flick that carved open the Korean defence. In between, trading superfluity for subtlety, there were the trademark surging runs when he almost dared the defenders to take him on; one, with four goals in the can, saw him pick up the ball from midfield and beat a defender who had a start on him.
And always, always, he was looking goalwards. One moment in the last 20 minutes summed it up: Chasing the ball near the left byline with a team-mate and a Korean defender, he spotted the opponent shaping to pass the ball back to the 'keeper. In a flash he broke away and charged towards the 'keeper, unnerving him so that he fluffed his clearance.
It helped that the supporting cast was in equally sublime form, none more so than Tiago - whose first came following a lung-bursting run down the left by Ronaldo, with the defence at sixes and sevens - and Fabio Coentrao. The latter partnership will be especially pleasing to Portugal and their coach Carlos Queiroz; there was excellent chemistry between the young left-back and his skipper though he will want to improve on his finishing.
Having played with such beauty it was ironic that Ronaldo's goal was more or less bundled into the net after bouncing on his back and his head. But that, too, was a result of his predatory instinct, chasing a loose ball in the area and beating the 'keeper to it. It ended a two-year international drought, as he emphasised on Sunday, and will have boosted his confidence - if indeed he ever suffers from a crisis of confidence - following a domestic season that didn't live up to the highs of the two that had gone before it.
In truth it was always going to be difficult living up to the label of the world's most expensive footballer given that the world's current best player is effectively priceless. The price tag was one issue; the other was the notion that he could continue the amazing form that shepherded - often single-handed - Manchester United to those three Premier League titles on the trot. He's been lying low for a while now but Ronnie's back. Next up: A showdown with Luis Fabiano, Robinho and the rest of the samba boys. That's the really big stage he will have to dominate.