Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland beaten by one of the greatest in Ronaldo

By Steven Beacom

He came, he saw, he got angry, he became inspired and he eventually conquered. There is no doubt about it — Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players ever to strut his stuff at Windsor Park.

 

His hat-trick last night to overcome Northern Ireland in a compelling and dramatic World Cup qualifier was simply stunning, just when his side needed it.

That's a sign of a world-class performer. Delivering when the chips are down.

Booed all night by the Northern Ireland fans, they graciously applauded him off when he was substituted in injury time and the game had been won 4-2 by the visitors.

You have to appreciate genius and it was good to see the Kop doing just that.

But while he deserves all the praise going, it must be noted that Northern Ireland's dreadful lack of discipline helped him become the Portugal hero yet again.

This was a ‘what could have been night' rather than another glorious chapter in the rich history of Windsor, possibly staging its last big international before the builders move in.

Approaching the hour mark of this gripping encounter, Michael O'Neill's men were leading 2-1 and were playing against 10 men after the first-half dismissal of Helder Postiga for putting his head into the face of Gareth McAuley.

The Portuguese had taken the lead with a soft goal from Bruno Alves only for Northern Ireland to show immense character with McAuley intelligently directing a header home before the break to equalise, despite being surrounded by defenders.

Then shortly after the interval, Jamie Ward, in an offside position it should be noted, bundled the ball into the net from a Jonny Evans knock-down.

Both goals came from the clever inswinging corners of Shane Ferguson, who cannily took advantage of desperate goalkeeping and edgy defending in the Portugal ranks.

There was nothing clever though about the challenges from Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty that led to their dismissals. Brunt had played well at left-back and was a little unlucky to pick up a first-half booking for a foul on Ronaldo, but he knows himself that the crude 60th minute foul on Joan Periera which saw him receive a second yellow card was silly and needless.

It gave Portugal hope and transformed the game.

While Brunt lost his head, Ronaldo used his to perfection, nodding in twice when it was ten-v-ten to give the visitors the lead.

Then Lafferty, who had come on as a substitute, launched into a crazy challenge by the touchline on Periera and saw red on 80 minutes.

It was clueless from a player who has so much to offer Northern Ireland but all too often lets himself and his team-mates down.

There was no way back after that.

Just time for Ronaldo to smash home a free-kick and complete his hat-trick, taking Portugal back to the top of the Group F table, keeping alive their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup finals automatically ahead of Russia and Israel instead of going through the anxiety of a play-off.

Let's be honest, we all want to see Ronaldo in Brazil.

He could light up the tournament with his breathtaking skills.

But we didn't want him to deliver against our boys last night.

The game was there for Northern Ireland who were playing superbly with 11 men on the field.

Roy Carroll was making fine saves, McAuley and Jonny Evans were commanding at the back and Lee Hodson, drafted in at right-back, was having a cracker.

In midfield Ferguson, Niall McGinn, Steve Davis and Oliver Norwood were competing and at times getting the better of their Portuguese opponents while Martin Paterson and the lively Ward again worked their socks off.

But for all that they left the stadium disappointed due to the indiscretions of their team-mates and the indisputable quality of Cristiano Ronaldo.

In October, O'Neill's side spoiled his big party when he won his 100th cap in Porto by gaining a 1-1 draw.

Last night it was Ronaldo who ruled supreme.

Yet when Postiga was dismissed, he had lost his rag, was booked for dissent and continued his argument with the fourth official at the break.

He was angry and cut a frustrated figure as he walked |towards the tunnel at half-time.

By the finish of the game with the match ball under his arm we were talking about how awesome and fantastic he was.

If Gareth Bale is worth the massive £85m fee, you can put another £100m on top of that for CR7.

The question remains though, why-oh-why did Brunt and Lafferty make those rash and ridiculous decisions? This should have been Northern Ireland's night, not Ronaldo's!

Belfast Telegraph Digital

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph