Anybody looking for answers to the thorny issue of Cristiano Ronaldo’s future will have found few clues here, but if Portugal needed reassurance of his dedication to the job in hand they can rest easily enough.
Their captain’s apparent unhappiness at Real Madrid had dominated the buildup to the Confederations Cup opener against Mexico but he set up one goal and was involved in another as a match that had appeared to be drifting to a tepid conclusion ended pleasingly enough with the sides trading goals in the final five minutes.
Ronaldo had been a picture of studied inscrutability when he emerged, to a predictably shrill reception, for the warm-up although there must have been some element of release in jogging out of the tunnel. Tournaments turn footballers stir crazy at the best of times; that is amplified when you are the story and the focus had exasperated Fernando Santos, the Portugal manager, sufficiently to call a halt to questions on Ronaldo’s future during his pre-match press conference.
It was, Santos had stressed, on-pitch business as usual although his team were second-best in the opening 20 minutes against an insistent Mexico side that used the flanks boldly. That did not translate into clear chances and Portugal, overcoming their lack of cohesion, soon offered evidence of their cutting edge.
They thought they had taken the lead when Pepe, diverting João Moutinho’s volley into an empty net, ran off in celebration only to be pulled back by the Argentinian match official, Néstor Pitana, for scrutiny by the video assistant referees. The delay, reassuringly short at well under a minute, resulted in the goal being correctly disallowed for a number of offsides at an earlier stage in the buildup. Ronaldo had been heavily involved in the move, striking a free-kick against the wall before rattling the crossbar with his follow-up, the ball then dropping for Moutinho.
By now Ronaldo had livened up and in the 34th minute he created a goal that counted. He appeared to have faltered as he approached the penalty area having run into 50 yards of space down the inside-left; it was a reminder that anyone tempted to pay Real a nine-figure fee for his services would not be receiving the explosive force of old but the mind is perhaps sharper than ever and, recovering the situation, Ronaldo found Ricardo Quaresma with an excellent piece of vision. Quaresma, equally cool, let Guillermo Ochoa commit himself and then walked the ball into the net.
The two players combined again shortly afterwards, a Ronaldo backheel setting his colleague up for a shot that was dragged wide, but Mexico found an equaliser with half-time nearing. Raphaël Guerreiro, the Portugal left-back, was at fault for allowing the ball to run to Carlos Vela. The Real Sociedad forward returned it into the six-yard box and Javier Hernández, who had fluffed an earlier header, converted this one with an emphatic thrust of the neck.
The first half had become pleasing on the eye but the second offered little such gratification until the closing stages. Both teams seemed to have settled for the draw, amid the mildly lulling backdrop of a sub-capacity and sporadically engaged crowd, before Cédric Soares scored what would on balance have been a deserved winner four minutes from time.
Ronaldo, far less of a threat now but staying involved, played Gelson Martins into space and his right-sided centre was half-cleared by Héctor Herrera. Soares seized upon the loose ball and, via a hefty deflection off the unfortunate Herrera, beat Ochoa from an angle. This time the VAR did not come into its own: the players had already lined up to restart when it was called upon again to resolve an unspecified query. The delay seemed unnecessary but the goal stood.
Mexico had shown little since the opening period but, when Jonathan dos Santos swung over a corner in added time, Héctor Moreno rose highest to equalise. Ronaldo would be named the official man of the match at the game’s conclusion; somehow, it still had to be about him.
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