Cristiano Ronaldo was at the scene of a triumph that helped launch his superstar career ten years ago, as he sought to add a closing chapter
Kashinath Bhattacharjee, Moscow
Luzhniki stadium never seems to let Cristiano Ronaldo down.
CR7’s penalty was saved by Petr Cech in the 2008 Champions League final here. But the then Man United man was on the winners’ list when Chelsea’s John Terry slipped while going to take the fifth shot and missed. At that moment, Cristiano was lying on his chest and crying profusely. His Manchester United teammates hauled him up. Later Nicolas Anelka’s penalty was saved by Edwin van der Sar and Manchester United, under Alex Ferguson, won their second Champions League title.
Ten years on, Cristiano scored another goal on the Luzhniki turf, almost in the same fashion as he scored in the Champions League final back in the day.
Chelsea dominated the match a decade ago, Morocco did the same here on Wednesday. Both the teams Cristiano played for suffered for most of the time, but ground out a win. Morocco could not equalise. They were in need of a striker who could put the ball in back of the net. The Africans were the first casualty of this World Cup in Russia after being beaten in their first two games, despite showing glimpses of their potential. Even Fernando Santos, the Portuguese coach, admitted that the result might have been unfair to Morocco who played really well.
However, there is no stopping Cristiano who is having a dream World Cup at the age of 33 years and four months. Before Russia, the Real Madrid man had only three goals from three World Cups. In 2006, his first goal was against Iran from a penalty; in South Africa the only strike came against North Korea in a match Portugal won 7-0 and in Brasilia, his goal helped Portugal beat Ghana 2-1 but could not ensure Portugal a passage to the next round.
In contrast, Ronaldo has had four goals now from two matches in Russia. The hat-trick against Spain was another record as the oldest footballer to achieve this. With his three Champions League titles and a Euro 2016 crown, the Portuguese poacher is passing through the best phase of his career.
The transformation from a winger to a goal-scorer has been more than smooth. In the history of the European Championships, too, he is the highest scorer with nine goals along with Michel Platini, although Platini scored all those in the single edition of 1984 and Cristiano took four tournaments to emulate that. His tally of 85 goals for Portugal is the highest international total as a European footballer, surpassing Ferenc Puskas.
But, can he lead Portugal to the defining glory of winning the World Cup in Russia?
Portugal, under Fernando Santos, had developed into a team that somehow manages to keep a lead. Pepe and Bruno Alves have been rock solid while Rui Patricio between the sticks pulled off some miraculous saves to deny the opposition.
The midfield of Joao Moutinho, Joao Mario and Bernardo Silva may not be as creative as some other European or South American teams, but they are one of the most organised sides now. Their first two matches proved that the lady luck is on their side, too.
Cristiano’s presence in the press conference at Luzhniki did prompt a journalist from Portugal to ask about the future – and he dealt with the question in his usual style.
“We have to take it match by match. The first target is to confirm our passage to the knockout round. We drew the first match, won the second and need a good result against Iran to try and top the group. We need to try and improve, as always,” was his signing off reply from that maximum-two-questions presser.
What is evident is that these four goals have given Ronaldo a morale boost to try and go all the way. Nobody knows it better than Cr7 himself that this is his last chance to go after the crowning glory.