For me the romance of the World Cup has always been the hidden gems – the unknown young starlets from Boca Juniors, Zamalek or the J-league. There is always the fear that the matches featuring the European heavyweights turn into a predictable anti-climax. Well you can forget about that in terms of this game. What an extraordinary encounter it was right from the off, two of the best in the business going at it without reservation or doubt: the result was a game of the highest standards.
The crowd inside the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi was sent into raptures just six minutes in when a clumsy challenge from Nacho on his Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo handed A Seleção das Quinas a penalty. The most capped player and top goalscorer in Portuguese history made no mistake from the spot and Portugal had the Spanish on the ropes. An incisive pass from the brilliant Bernardo Silva incited another Portuguese breakaway, this time Ronaldo playing in young Valencia forward Gonçalo Guedes, but he couldn’t get away his shot in time before Gerard Piqué intervened. La Furia Roja woke after the opening 20 minutes: first, David Silva caused havoc in-between the lines and fired over from 12 yards; then, after a last-ditch block from Jordi Alba, the ball was heaved forward towards Diego Costa, who bullied Pepe off the ball and twisted and turned to fire viciously past Rui Patrício. All square and suddenly it’s all Spain – Isco rifling a drive from an impossible angle off the underside of the crossbar within minutes of the restart. A cheeky back heel from the imperious Andrés Iniesta nearly put the Spanish ahead. Fernando Hierro is animated and gesticulatory on the sidelines. Then, wallop. Moments before the half time whistle, a crisp drive from Ronaldo is straight at de Gea yet somehow the ball squirms away into the bottom corner of the net. Oh dear-Gea! An absolute shocker gives Portugal back the advantage and they go into half time jubilant.
After a breathless first half, surely things couldn’t continue at such a lightening pace. Wrong again (and don’t call me Shirley) – Hierro had mustered the troops and the magnificent Isco compelled the Spanish forward after switching from the left to right flanks. Direct from the training ground (thanks Julien), a sumptuous teasing ball from David Silva was met by the head of Sergio Busquets rising at the back post. The nod down falls at the feet of Costa who doubles his tally with ease. 2-2! Four minutes later, Portugal coach Fernando Santos has his head in his hands. Good play from Silva down the left sees the ball sit up nicely for right back Nacho about 25 yards out, he swings his foot across the ball and it rockets into the net past Rui Patricio with the help of both posts. A magnificent strike. The Portuguese hustled desperately but struggled to win the ball back as Spain implemented their possession-based style, Thiago Alcantara replacing the majestic Iniesta for more of the same. More uncertain goalkeeping from de Gea nearly gave Ronaldo a chance for his hat-trick after a collision left both the goalkeeper and Pique hugging eachother in the penalty area, but the Spanish managed to scramble the ball to safety. Portugal needed a hero, and yes he answered. Pique is the guilty party, tripping up the Portuguese talisman on the edge of the box. Ronaldo steps up and curls the ball with pace up, over and around the wall leaving de Gea static in the middle of the goal. Remarkable! The perfect hat-trick just when his country needed him.
The level of football produced by these two sets of players was on another level tonight. It was a joy to watch, one of the best games of football one will ever see. Congratulations to both teams, and thank you. This is what the World Cup is all about.
Man of the Match: Cristiano Ronaldo (POR)
Best: Isco, Jordi Alba, David Silva, Diego Costa (all SPA), Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Raphaël Guerreiro (all POR)