Rumours of Cristiano Ronaldo’s demise were premature. Heavily criticised around the world for his petulant comments after drawing 1-1 with Iceland, taunted and jeered when ineffectual against Austria, Portugal’s captain issued a devastating response. With two goals, one assist and an increasingly inspirational performance, he rallied his nation against a relentless Hungarian side and dragged them to the next stage of the competition.
His double to save his country from the brink of elimination was outstanding — and record breaking. He’s the first player to score at four European Championships.
Earlier in the day, Ronaldo had tossed a reporters’ microphone into a lake, a forthright way to signal that he was in no mood for distractions. Other Portuguese reporters, careful to keep their equipment safe, had noted that he looked despondent in training this week and when he started the game slowly, their worst fears appeared to have been realised.
Marked tightly by Adam Lang, he found it hard to break free and when he did, he encountered heavy treatment. He was chopped to the ground as early as the fifth minute by Roland Juhasz and it wasn’t the last time. His frustrations were exposed just moments later when Nani broke on the right, but failed to get a cross away before the ball went out for a corner. Ronaldo was furious, spinning on the spot and roaring with rage.
Free kicks were, once again, a sore point. His first was driven into the shin pads of the Hungarian wall. The second was better, but well saved by Gabor Kiraly. The third was simply high and wide. But then came the lightbulb moment. Instead of trying to do everything on his own, Ronaldo slipped a perfectly weighted ball through to Nani, who redeemed himself by driving it past Kiraly at the near post. In that instant, Ronaldo seemed to be renewed. And how his country needed him.
Trailing 2-1 in the early stage of the second half, Joao Mario burst down the right flank and curled in a low cross. The ball fizzed in at pace, but at a less-than-helpful angle. No matter. Ronaldo flicked it behind his standing leg into the bottom corner. It was an astonishing goal.
Hungary, pugnacious and unwilling to accept a role as supporting actors, responded and regained the lead. But Ronaldo wasn’t giving up either. When Ricardo Quaresma joined the fray, it didn’t take him long to make an impression.
His cross from the left was perfect. Ronaldo’s leap was supernatural. His deft header drew the scores level. Ronaldo is back.
- Portugal survive but have problems
Portugal emerge from Group F and will now face Croatia in a tantalising clash in the round of 16, but it could so easily have been different. There are problems in this team, a vulnerability that could have cost them dearly. They cannot expect to go much further in this sort of shape.
Manager Fernando Santos had declared his confidence in his team, and his star player, before the game and kept his changes to a minimum. The injured Raphael Guerreiro was replaced by Eliseu, while Quaresma was dropped to facilitate a return to 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield.
But while all the prematch attention was focused on the front line, the real problems were behind Nani and Ronaldo. With Joao Moutinho pushing up from midfield, the only protection came from William Carvalho, all too easily bypassed by Hungarian counterattacks. Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho did their best to repel intruders, but with limited success. And no one could stop Zoltan Gera from thundering Hungary into the lead.
Frustration began to tell. Players gesticulated at each other in fury whenever a move broke down, a frequent occurrence. Coach Santos made changes at half-time. Off came Moutinho and on came the more dynamic Renato Sanches. But Hungary were leading again within a minute of the restart, a Balazs Dzsudzsak free kick taking a wicked deflection off Andre Gomes in the wall.
- Hungary emerge as a credible threat
Hungary are the dark horses that no one saw coming. And they continue to astound. Already safely through to the next round, manager Bernd Storck made five changes to his team here in Lyon. Every Hungarian with a yellow card to his name was duly withdrawn to ensure that they wouldn’t be banned for the round of 16. And even with a weakened team, they still they made it hard for Portugal.
Veteran Gera, 37, became the second oldest player to score in a European Championship in spectacular style, smashing home the ball from outside the area when Portugal failed to clear a first-half corner. Nani responded, but Hungary were level again early in the second half when Dzsudzsak smashed home a free kick.
You would think that the fight would have drained out of them when Ronaldo executed his moment of genius, but five minutes later they were ahead again, another effort from Dzsudzsak finding its way past Rui Patricio, this time with some help from Joao Mario.
They never stopped working, never stopped trying to test the Portuguese. Their ferocious supporters, dressed in black and massed behind the goal, were like an army of Mordor, pumping fists and booming drums.
They have been a welcome addition to this tournament. Their opponents — the runners-up in Group E — in the next round should be careful. In this sort of mood, they won’t fear anyone.