Spain and Portugal played out one of the greatest World Cup contests in recent tournaments in an all-European clash in Sochi on Friday night.
Cristiano Ronaldo, as if it was necessary at this point, elevated his status that bit more with a superb hat-trick
Having fallen behind twice, Fernando Hierro’s men showed tremendous fortitude to come back and win the match 3-2, only to see two points dropped late on when Gerard Pique gave away a needless foul on the edge of the area. Ronaldo did the necessary and the game finished in a 3-3 masterpiece.
But what did we learn from a highly entertaining 90 minutes?
Cristiano Ronaldo shows no sign of slowing down
33 years of age and still single-handedly dictating Champions League and World Cup matches – Cristiano Ronaldo is, quite simply, a phenomenon of the modern footballing age. The Real Madrid forward has tended to struggle in this tournament throughout his career, but this match showed that he’s here to play this time around.
There’s a determination about Ronaldo that is unrivalled, and an aversion to pressure that is an inspiration to everyone. From opening the scoring with a penalty with less than five minutes on the clock to nailing a free kick – long a weakness of his – into the net to rescue a draw in the dying minutes. It’s a testament to his hard work and exactly why he is considered an all-time great.
Ronaldo’s supporting players, however, need to step up
Ronaldo aside, Portugal have issues. Their forward got them out of jail, as has so often been the case in the past, and their reliance on him isn’t healthy.
The central defensive partnership of Pepe and Jose Fonte, in particular, were subpar to the point of embarrassment at times. They were torn apart at will by the Spanish attack and on another evening they could have been made to pay. The wing options of Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva didn’t have particularly good days at the office either, though the central partnership of Joao Moutinho and William Carvbalho did improve in the second half.
They can rely on Ronaldo against Morocco and Iran, but they need to rediscover some of the Euro 2016 team spirit to get further than that.
Spain’s concentration levels seriously need to improve
Despite Ronaldo’s brilliance, it really can’t be argued that Spain did more than enough to win that game, yet somehow contrived to throw it away. The 2010 winners were immaculate at times here, with wonderfully intricate passing and the creation of a multitude of chances, but leave with a point when it should have been three.
From giving away a soft penalty after just three minutes, to David De Dea’s rare loss of concentration, right up to Pique conceding a needless free kick in a dangerous area, Spain were the architects of their own downfall here. Morocco and Iran are unlikely to punish La Roja to the same extent as Ronaldo did, but it’s something that Fernando Hierro needs to work on between now and the knockout stages.
Diego Costa is finally fully integrated into this team
Diego Costa, on the face iof it, seemed to be a bit of an ill-fitting forward for Spain’s system; certainly, this was the case when he was first introduced to the side at the World Cup in 2014. Here, however, he seemed to be much more at home leading the line for Spain.
He bullied and harassed the Portuguese defence throughout, and was well worth his two goals. In a Spanish side that seems much more adept at blending the intricate with the direct than Vicente del Bosque’s incarnation, a player like Costa will be a vital commodity. It’s a new slant on a classic, and the Atletico man is at the forefront of the movement.
Both of these sides should still feel very confident of progression
The standard of quality between this and the earlier fixture between Iran and Morocco was like chalk and cheese. The European sides highlighted exactly why they are regarded as the group favourites, and that status should be enhanced with this result, as both have shown the necessary quality that will be the gap between themselves and the other two sides in Group B.
Both have their flaws, of course, and they may be exposed to a greater extent in the last 16, but Portugal and Spain should both be fine in the remainder of this group.