Just when Cristiano Ronaldo looked to be heading out of the World Cup, he produced the moment of magic which the world had been waiting for.
Five minutes into stoppage time in the searing heat of Manaus, with Portugal trailing 2-1 and in the departure lounge ready for the flight home, a stunning Ronaldo cross was converted by substitute Varela to deny the United States a place in the second round and keep Portugal alive.
It will require a big victory against Ghana in Brasilia on Thursday, and a victor in a Germany-USA game in which both teams need only a draw to progress, but Portugal came back from the dead in the Amazon.
The challenge for Ronaldo now is to prove he deserves to stick around for a while longer in Brazil by carrying his team to victory against Ghana.
In contrast to the Americans, whose dramatic victory over Ghana had given Jurgen Klinsmann’s team the perfect start to Group G, Portugal went into this fixture in disarray after being routed 4-0 by Germany in Salvador.
The emphatic nature of the defeat was bad enough for Paulo Bento’s team, but the loss to injury of goalkeeper Rui Patricio, full-back Fabio Coentrao and centre-forward Hugo Almeida was compounded by the suspension earned by centre-half Pepe following his dismissal for head-butting Thomas Muller.
With ongoing doubts over the fitness of Ronaldo, whose left knee had been pictured strapped in ice during training earlier this week, it was perhaps unsurprising to hear Bento almost pessimistically admitting that this game was ‘win or go home.’
But with the locals in this remote corner of Brazil throwing their backing behind the Portuguese – Ronaldo, in particular – to drown out the support of a huge travelling contingent from the United States, Portugal made a vibrant start to the game.
Ronaldo, subdued by the Germans last Monday, began with intent and a mesmerising piece of trickery which fooled three American defenders inside the opening five minuts brought the crowd to its feet and secured the swing-voters inside the Arena Amazonia.
It was as though the Portugal captain had been stung by Klinsmann’s pre-match comments that the Americans would win the game if they were able to ‘put Ronaldo in his place.’
Klinsmann’s words will have been chosen carefully, with the suspicion still held within the game that Ronaldo can be distracted by a sense of injustice or a determination to steal the show, but certainly in the early stages, the Real Madrid forward was up for the occasion.
And within seconds of his wizardry on the touchline which energised the crowd, Ronaldo was celebrating Portugal’s opening goal when Nani took advantage of shambolic American defender to score.
The Manchester United winger took a touch to control the ball before shooting past his former Old Trafford team-mate, American goalkeeper Tim Howard, from six yards, but he was perhaps taken aback by the ball actually reaching him in the first place.
Geoff Cameron, the Stoke City defender, swung a leg at a tame cross in the penalty area, but his miscue saw the ball drop to Nani. Howard then made the chance easier for him by going to ground far too early, leaving the Portuguese to claim only his fifteenth international goal.
The United States responded well, however, and the fighting spirit within their ranks was typified by Clint Dempsey, who went close to equalised with a free-kick and near post effort shortly after Nani’s goal.
Kyle Beckerman took the Americans’ battling qualities too far, however, when he was fortunate to escape punishment from Argentine referee Nestor Pitana for appearing to elbow Raul Meireles in the face following a heavy challenge which left both players on the turf.
While Meireles complained about the elbow, Portugal were forced to withdraw the injured forward Helder Postiga due to a hamstring injury – the latest fitness blow to hamper their World Cup prospects.
But having lost the momentum gained by Nani’s early goal, Portugal began to concede possession and invite the Americans forward.
As a result, Dempsey went close again, while Michael Bradley almost scored with a 30-yard strike which flashed inches over the crossbar.
Portugal struggled to counter, but in the closing stages of the first-half, Ronaldo and Nani were denied by Howard before the Everton goalkeeper produced an acrobatic save on the stroke of half-time to prevent substitute Eder from making it 2-0.
With the Americans struggling to break through, Portugal upped the tempo in the second-half in an attempt to kill off their opponents.
More hapless defending led to Eder being given a chance to score on 48 minutes, but the Braga forward has looked well off the pace in Brazil and he predictably directed his shot over the bar.
The States then responded and the adventurous full-back Fabian Johnson pulled the ball back for Bradley to take a free strike at goal from six yards, but just as an equaliser appeared inevitable, Ricardo Costa produced a crucial goal-line clearance to keep Portugal ahead.
There would be no stopping Jones’s goal 10 minutes later, however.
In a tournament illuminated by wonder goals, this one – a right-foot curler from 25 yards -- was right up there with Lionel Messi’s winner against Iran and Robin van Persie’s header against Spain.
Dempsey’s was not quite so eye-catching, but it looked set to secure victory for the States until Ronaldo intervened with his cross for Varela’s injury-time equaliser.
Source: Mark Ogden: The Telegraph
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