Portugal’s meeting with Ghana was supposed to be about Cristiano Ronaldo, but even the former Manchester United strike could not completely dominate the agenda in a breathless 3-2 victory.
Ronaldo scored, as you would expect, but a see-saw game was in the balance right until the final seconds of 10 minutes injury-time, with the Portuguese ultimately just clinging on to the victory.
Our writers analyse the key talking points from the match.
Ronaldo’s dramatic day
There was never any doubt that the World Cup’s only free agent would be the centre of attention and true to type the lip-glossed CR7 was a camera’s dream even before kick off.
With his lack of movement these days the weeping
Madonna Ronaldo getting emotional during the anthems felt appropriate. Whether the tears were more Paul Gascoigne or Matt Hancock on the scale of sincerity, it was one of the defining images of the World Cup so far.
His early touches were loudly cheered, but those cheers turned to gasps when he was slipped in on goal and the ball bounced off his boot like it was made of concrete.
Then he sent a close range header from the back stick – a Ronaldo trademark – off target. And when he finally found his touch in front of goal, the world’s most prolific international footballer of all time was penalised for a foul. Things weren’t going his way, but that wasn’t going to deter Portugal’s human force of nature.
A second-half switch to short sleeves made him look the part. And then came the big moment…Ronald just gets to the ball ahead of Mohammed Salisu, wins a penalty and confidently and powerfully despatches it over Lawrence Ati-Zigi to become the first man in history to score in five World Cups.
His team mates surrounded him, subs and all, the stadium did a collective siuuu. His goal, his nation, his stage. It had to be him.
He enjoyed himself so much he even stayed until the final whistle.
Bruno thrives (and protects his pal)
There’s a strong argument – backed up by data and stats – that Bruno Fernandes isn’t as effective an attacking player when he’s got Ronaldo ahead of him.
That may be true, but they didn’t hinder each other here. In fact Fernandes thrived, especially in the second half when finding space to play two perfect and game-winning through balls.
The first to Joao Felix was beautifully placed (yes it should have been cut out) and the second to Rafael Leao was sublimely held and then timed.
Portugal have a plethora of attacking talents and Fernandes, who was so underwhelming (and absolutely knackered) at last year’s Euros that he was dropped by Fernando Santos, will prove pivotal in particular if Portugal are to go deep into this tournament.
He and Bernardo Silva are that link between a sturdy midfield and an attack that needs awareness, precision and vision from behind if it is to flourish. Three chances created by Fernandes, two assists (after his two goals in their final friendly against Nigeria last week) and a pass accuracy of 94 per cent.
Fernandes even found time to shield his great mate Ronaldo from Ghana’s protesting players when he was waiting to take his penalty. They’re bosom bodies, they just hide it really well sometimes.
Ghana’s caution does not pay off
Ghana’s approach was cautious, but understandable — especially given the goalless draw in the earlier game between South Korea and Uruguay. If Ghana could come away from this game with a point, they would be happy.
Therefore, Addo Otto named a 5-3-2 system designed to contain, frustrate and launch occasional counter-attacks, generally with long balls in behind for Inaki Williams. Twice in the first half, Ghana had the right idea but couldn’t feed Williams with the right pass, underlining the lack of a genuine playmaker in this side.
Mohammed Kudus was the brightest of the midfielders, breaking forward dangerously at the start of the second half, before driving just wide from the edge of the box, then later fizzed a thunderous half-volley at goal, unfortunately straight down the throat of Diogo Costa.
Thomas Party is evidently a talented passer, but his role often seems unclear. Still, take a 0-0, eh? But that plan fell through when Mohamed Salisu was slightly harshly adjudged to have brought down Cristiano Ronaldo, who slammed in the penalty.
What was Ghana’s plan B? Well, same as the Plan A. And it — just about — worked, when a through-ball that wasn’t intended for Williams eventually ran through to him, and allowed him to square for Andre Ayew’s tap-in. Runs in behind eventually worked for Ghana. 1-1.
But runs in behind cost Ghana, too. First Joao Felix and then substitute Rafael Leao’s speed caught Ghana’s defence flat-footed, taking the game away from them within the space of three minutes. Monday’s game against South Korea isn’t a must-win, but it’s definitely a must-not-lose. It remains to be seen whether Ghana will be any bolder.
Felix’s runs show the way
Ghana’s deep 5-3-2 gave them an extremely comfortable first half. One of the things when trying to break down a back five block is to have runners in behind complementing the players dropping between the lines. Portugal’s front three of Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix and Cristiano Ronaldo – yes, even Ronaldo was dropping – dropped more than they made runs in behind.
In theory this makes sense with Portugal’s 4-3-3 trying to overload Ghana’s midfield three by finding Fernandes and Felix behind them or on the side of the three. Yet, too often the movement was simply dropping from the front three rather than running in behind.
The ones that were made, though, were not accurately found and the passes were a bit heavy. With no runs in behind, all Portugal’s possession was in front of Ghana’s back five, making it easier for them to track the ball and Portugal’s players.
In the second half, there were better off-ball runs, especially from Felix, whose dart in behind the Ghanian defence led to the penalty through which Ronaldo scored.
Then with the scores back level at 1-1, his brilliant movement provided a passing option for Fernandes and Felix struck to score Portugal’s second, and ultimately put them on course for victory.
Almost a sting in the tail…
After a calm first half, the second was more transitional with spaces all over the place. Portugal could have scored more than three with spaces opening up in the Ghanian defence but still seemed certain to close out victory in the dying seconds of the 10 minutes added on when Diogo Costa prepared to launch the ball downfield.
But he reckoned without Inaki Williams, who was lurking behind him, waiting for him to lay the ball down in front of him. Just as Costa did that, he pounced. Unfortunately for the Athletic Bilbao forward he slipped as he got in font of Costa, missing his moment of glory and a point that would have been a remarkable achievement for Ghana.
(Top photo: Sarah Stier – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)