Why Ronaldo now part of the Portugal team: rather than the heartbeat of it, and they're stronger for it

Why Ronaldo now part of the Portugal team: rather than the heartbeat of it, and they’re stronger for it

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PORTO, Portugal Cristiano Ronaldo’s dream of a World Cup swan song in Qatar remains alive, but only after Portugal survived the late drama of a missed penalty by Turkey’s Burak Yilmaz in a tense 3-1 Path C playoff semifinal victory in Porto.

Portugal are developing a habit of making life difficult for themselves, having blown automatic qualification for Qatar 2022 by conceding a 90th minute goal in a 2-1 defeat against Serbia in Lisbon last November. And the 2016 European champions face another nerve-shredding encounter with North Macedonia back here at Estadio do Dragao on Tuesday in a win-o -bust tie for a place in the World Cup.

Think North Macedonia will be easy? Ask Italy, who will now miss a second consecutive World Cup after losing 1-0 to the rank outsiders in Palermo on Thursday.

all But while Matheus Nunes goal, four minutes into stoppage time, confirmed Portugal’s win and made the scoreline appear more comfortable than it actually was, Fernando Santos’ team will face North Macedonia with the belief that it can get the job done because it is now a group of players who can win regardless of whether Ronaldo makes the crucial contribution, as he has done so often since winning the first of his 185 caps in 2003. Perhaps for the first time since the early days of Ronaldo’s record-breaking international career, his country’s fate no longer rests heavily on the Manchester United forward’s shoulders.

Portugal made it through to their date with World Cup destiny without Ronaldo adding to his world-record tally of 115 international goals. The 37-year-old played his part, but it was FC Porto forward Otavio and Liverpool’s Diogo Jota who scored the goals, prior to Burak Yilmaz’s 65th minute strike for Turkey, that set them on the way to victory before a late wobble, when Yilmaz sent his penalty over the crossbar after a VAR check identified a Jose Fonte foul on Enes Unal.

Had Yilmaz scored to make it 2-2 with five minutes to play, who knows how Portugal would have handled the anxiety of throwing another crucial lead away. But they held on, calmed their nerves with the third goal and are now potentially just 90 minutes away from a World Cup that Ronaldo has previously said would mark the end of his international career.

The good news for Portugal is that they can plan for North Macedonia and, they hope, Qatar with a team that is strong enough to go all the way and become world champions. Not because they have Ronaldo, but because Portugal now have such a depth of talent that they were able to overcome Turkey despite being without several key players.

Injuries forced Ruben Dias, Ruben Neves, Pedro Neto, Nelson Semedo and Renato Sanches out of this fixture, while COVID-19 and suspension denied them the services of Pepe and Joao Cancelo, respectively.

But in came 38 year-old Jose Fonte alongside Danilo at the back, with Diogo Dalot stepping in for Cancelo at right-back. Joao Moutinho performed exceptionally in the absence of Wolverhampton Wanderers teammate Neves, anchoring what was largely a one-man midfield as Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes made up a five-man swarm of attacking players with Ronaldo, Jota and Otavio.

why Portugal had so many attacking options that they were able to start with Joao Felix on the bench, and Turkey struggled to cope as they flowed forward. Ronaldo, who has struggled at times in a central role at United this season, highlighted another part of his game by dropping deeper than usual and acting as a link between the lines.

A flick to Fernandes instigated the move for Portugal’s second goal, which culminated with Otavio crossing for Jota to head in at the far post on 42 minutes. Otavio had opened the scoring on 15 minutes by netting from the rebound after Bernardo’s shot had struck the post.

Ultimately, it does not matter who scores the goals so long as the team wins, but for so many years, opponents have known that if you stop Ronaldo, you pretty much stop Portugal. Turkey discovered in this game that that logic no longer applies.

Ronaldo is now part of a team rather than the heartbeat of it, and Portugal are a stronger unit as a result.

The If they progress past North Macedonia Pepe and Cancelo are expected to return for that game the quality of Portugal’s squad suggests that they will be a force to be reckoned with in Qatar. As we have all learned over the years, Ronaldo tends to write his own script on the big occasion, but winning a World Cup at the age of 37 would be some way to sign off from the international stage.

Portugal have a difficult hurdle to overcome next week, but if they clear it, don’t underestimate the ability of this team to give Ronaldo the fairy-tale ending he will be dreaming about.