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Even when it’s not about him, it’s about him. Cristiano Ronaldo was kicked out of the Portugal squad by manager Fernando Santos, either because of his behavior after their last game or because he just isn’t as good anymore.
Whatever the ultimate reasoning, the feeling many in Portugal – and, indeed, Manchester – had for some time that the team would be better off without CR7 was more than justified as his replacement, Goncalo Ramos, managed a hat trick to take on Santos. men in the quarter-finals with a 6-1 victory over Switzerland.
Ronaldo, who had been criticized in the build-up by his own coach for his conduct at the tournament, was pictured walking off the pitch alone as his team-mates celebrated with Portuguese fans. He had cheered the fans on his own, but was out before the rest of his team arrived.
Ramos was exceptional. It was his first international start but the 21-year-old Benfica star has 14 in 21 this season and is in fine form. He had, before today, played 33 minutes of international football.
He couldn’t have dreamed that his full debut would go so well. The last player to score a hat trick on his World Cup debut was Miroslav Klose, against Saudi Arabia in 2002. He performed well and finished as the all-time top scorer in the World Cup .
Beyond the ridiculous improbability of such a start – and such a start ostensibly replacing their greatest player in your nation’s history – was the extent of his skill in his goals.
The first, smashed past Yann Sommer before he knew what had happened, was a sublime, powerful and venomous finish, while the third, a dink on Yann Sommer that showed that Ramos had finesse to match.
And the second was perhaps the most iconic, a dart near the post and an outside kick, the kind that Ronaldo used to score regularly but just doesn’t anymore. There could be a lesson in that.
Portugal were quicker, more consistent and more dangerous than they have long looked. “I think it’s pretty obvious the best World Cup performance so far,” Craig Foster said on SBS. “It’s an incredible performance from start to finish. How many chances did they concede?
“Thanks to Santos. He did an amazing job. It’s a huge call. I think it was reasonably obvious to everyone, including most of the Portuguese, that he just wasn’t contributing as much and that what Ronaldo has to give now at club and national level is off the bench It was one of the best football games I have seen in this tournament.
Ramos was mobile through the middle – beyond his goals, he also laid on Rafa Guerreiro for another – and allowed Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix to show their best performances of the tournament creatively, with one and two respectively assists.
Because it’s not entirely a young man’s game, Pepe, 39, also crashed in a first-half header from a Fernandes corner. Rafa Leao stuck in a curler with seconds left which completed the rout.
Switzerland had no answer. They looked superb beating Serbia in the final group game but were unable to deal with the constant movement in front of their defensive line.
The National made an art form of frustrating teams with better individuals, but they were far from the Portuguese on this projection.
They earned second-half consolation through Manual Akanji – their first Round of 16 goal since 1954 – but that was just a mere footnote to one of the tournament’s most surprising stories.
Ramos was eventually removed, and with the people of Qatar claiming the rejected star, Ronaldo came on as a replacement.
It was a first for the man with all the records: to have started 20 of the 21 previous matches available in the World Cup, with only one incidence – when he was rested against Mexico with Portugal until 2006 – where he was not the first name on the team sheet, it was the first time he presented himself as a substitute in the World Cup.
Since his debut against Kazakhstan in 2003, he has scored 118 goals in 194 games. He almost made 119 in 195, but an offside flag deprived him and the crowd of the moment.
It was for the best: the moments, all three, belonged to Ramos.