Ronaldo can help Portugal unlike Man Utd

LUSAIL, Qatar – Portugal manager Fernando Santos now has a level of control over Cristiano Ronaldo that Erik ten Hag created at Manchester United.

We all know how it turned out – Ronaldo’s Old Trafford contract was uprooted last month in an acrimonious exit – but Portugal showed on Tuesday night that a similar implosion is not inevitable for their captain in Qatar.

Santos felt compelled to remind the 37-year-old that he is part of a team, no longer untouchable and immune to the disciplinary conventions that bind mortals. The audacity Ronaldo displayed in reacting negatively to his switch against South Korea was a reminder of the behavior that led to his departure from United; his devoted supporters who see any diminishing status as disrespectful, his critics fueled by evidence that Ronaldo is unable to control his rage at the inexorable dying of the light.

Ronaldo’s prodigious powers may be waning, but make no mistake, leaving him on the bench against Switzerland was a big call. This was the first time he did not start a game for Portugal in a major tournament since 2008, ending a 31-match streak. So what followed was nothing short of remarkable: Ronaldo’s replacement, Goncalo Ramos, defied having just 33 minutes of international football behind him to bag a hat-trick in a 6-1 drubbing of Switzerland in which Portugal looked far more fluid and dynamically out. than at any previous stage here in Qatar.

This was a collective achievement to rival any produced in these finals, propelled Portugal alongside England as the tournament’s joint top scorers on 12 goals. The mix of fluency and flair in evidence will serve as a warning to all seven teams remaining – and should also evoke familiar emotions from Ronaldo, who is watching for all but the final 17 minutes.

United became a more potent and unpredictable attacking unit without Ronaldo. How can anyone argue otherwise about Portugal here? Ramos became the youngest man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup qualifying match after Pele.

Switzerland, who had so far conceded twice in three games, were completely overwhelmed. Bruno Fernandes had one of those nights where his instincts were sharp, playing passes with precision in contrast to the spread weapon distribution he often produces for United. Joao Felix was a constant threat. With Portugal trailing 4-1 at the hour mark, Santos came under pressure from a crowd desperate to see their idol, regardless of the unity they saw in his absence.

It was a feeling that was building before kick-off, with as many cameras trained on the Portuguese dugout as there were on the teams belting out their national anthems inside Lusail Stadium. Santos ended up firing away at the assembled crowd as they threatened to break the rope that cut them off from Ronaldo and his fellow substitutes. He desperately wanted his attention moved elsewhere. And from the moment Ramos smashed a sumptuous 17th-minute shot inside Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s near post from a tight angle, Santos’ conviction was confirmed.

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Alex Kirkland reacts to Portugal’s 6-1 win over Switzerland in the last 16 of the World Cup.

Pepe added a second, Ramos a third, Raphael Guerreiro a fourth. Still, Ronaldo’s subplot persisted. He was hailed when he ran out to break loose at the start of the second half. The crowd was openly calling for him with the game over as a contest.

The cheers that rang out when he walked out in the 73rd minute, uncaged, to take to the field were as loud as any goal celebration, many of which he joined as substitutes ran along the touchline in jubilation. Ramos had scored his hat-trick by then, but it was Ronaldo’s name that was being chanted.

He received the captain’s armband from Pepe and ran on in search of the goal that would add the personal coda he no doubt wanted to the ensemble piece that preceded him. After being ruled offside in the 84th minute, it was actually another substitute who found the net, AC Milan’s Rafael Leao curling in a fine effort on the stroke of half-time.

Few people talk about them, but Portugal are live contenders for this World Cup now. They will start favorites against surprise package Morocco in the quarter-finals, with or without Ronaldo, who must now accept this change of status.

“It’s still something that needs to be defined,” Santos said after the game about Ronaldo’s ongoing role in the team. “I have a very close relationship with him, I always have. I’ve known him since he was 19 at Sporting CP [in Lisbon] and then he started to develop in the national squad when I arrived in 2014. Ronaldo and I never misinterpret the human and personal aspect of manager and player.

“I will always consider him a very important player to have in the team.”

Santos added: “This is something that is finished and resolved, it is also important to look at the example of this player’s history, he is one of the best players in the world and therefore all we have to do is come [together] collectively.”

Ronaldo could still win a World Cup, which he only half-jokingly seemed to indicate in his interview with Piers Morgan would trigger his immediate retirement. He doesn’t need to be the star for Portugal to shine brightly. Santos, like Ten Hag, can show clear evidence that his team is better without him in the lineup. It stands to reason that a player with serious claims to being the greatest of all time could be a truly devastating replacement.

But he must embrace this new reality, something he never could under Ten Hag. Apparently he didn’t even try. The proximity of the prize in Qatar should sharpen his focus. Perhaps his treatment at United will help him. And in that context, this was actually a step forward: at least he didn’t refuse to move on.

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