Cristiano Ronaldos two late goals, added to a first-half effort, gave Portugal a 3-1 win in the Nations League semi-final after Switzerland
What more can be said about the man? He is 35 on his next birthday and, in football, even the greats reach a point when the one opponent they cannot beat is age. Not Cristiano Ronaldo, though or not yet anyway, judging by this latest demonstration of his uncommon ability to bend football matches to his will.
One certainty if England can make it past the Netherlands to reach the final on Sunday, a recording of this match will provide Gareth Southgate with the hard evidence of what he probably knew already: that to stop Portugal, first you have to stop Ronaldo. Southgate had sent his assistant, Steve Holland, to Porto to try to work out a way of making that happen. When the report is handed to Englands manager it will tell him it is a lot easier said than done.
The match culminated in the 53rd hat-trick of Ronaldos career and he certainly timed the last two goals, in the 88th and 90th minutes, to maximum effect, just as it had seemed Switzerland were going to take the game into extra-time courtesy of a bewildering VAR volte-face. Ronaldo had other ideas. This was his 157th appearance for Seleo and the 86th, 87th and 88th goals of a 16-year international career that, on this evidence, is far from being on the wane.
He is a genius, said the Portugal coach, Fernando Santos. There are genius painters and genius sculptors, but he is a genius in football. Simply a genius. When a player scores three goals in a game, of course he makes the difference.
Ronaldo may not be the jet-heeled teenager he was in 2003, when he made his Portuguese debut with braces on his teeth, but he remains a force of nature and, knowing what the man thinks of himself, he is probably already looking at the world record for international appearances, set by Ahmed Hassan of Egypt with 184. It was difficult not to come away from the Drago believing that Ronaldo, being Ronaldo, may eventually become the worlds first 200-cap footballer.
First things first, there is a final to play and another opportunity for the Euro 2016 winners to show this is a golden age for Portuguese football. Many of the supporters here wore Ronaldo masks. Some held up home-made posters asking for his shirt or, in the case of one middle-aged woman, a piece of embroidery showing the legendary CR7 six-pack. And, when the focus was not all on the man with the captains armband, it has to be said that Bernardo Silva was utterly brilliant, too.
By the end the only issue was to decide the pick of the goals. The first one was the classic Ronaldo free-kick: 25 yards out, a puff of the cheeks and then the ball struck in such a way it swerved over the wall and into the net without Yann Sommer, Switzerlands goalkeeper, even moving. The third goal involved a stepover, on the run, to deceive his nearest opponent before curling his shot into the opposite corner and, in between, the five-time Ballon dOr winner fired in Bernardos cross with another splendidly taken right-foot finish.
In the process, Ronaldo managed to make the evening feel as though it was entirely about him which was some feat bearing in mind what happened early in the second half and the question it left about whether, in the short history of VAR, there had ever been a more bewildering sequence of events.
Initially the German referee, Felix Brych, had pointed to the spot, correctly, because of Fabian Schr upending Bernardo inside the six-yard area. Then the message flashed up that the officials wanted to check the slow-motion replays and, after staring into the VAR monitor for a couple of minute, the referee pointed to the spot again this time, however, at the other end of the pitch.
Ronaldo had the ball in his hands at the time, waiting to take the penalty, but Brych had decided to penalise Nelson Semedo for an innocuouslooking challenge on Steven Zuber in Switzerlands previous attack. Ronaldo had to hand over the ball and watch, hands on hips, as Ricardo Rodrguez levelled the game from 12 yards. It was mystifying what infringement Brych had seen when, in reality, Zuber had tripped himself up. The referee had got it wrong, just as he did earlier in the match when Portugals Bruno Fernandes and the Swiss captain, Granit Xhaka, should have been sent off for a pair of wild challenges.
At 1-0, Switzerland could consider themselves unfortunate to be behind when they had been the more dangerous side for long spells. Xherdan Shaqiri thrived in his central role, operating just behind Haris Seferovic, who clipped the top of the crossbar with one effort late in the first half.
All the time, however, there was the possibility that Ronaldo could conjure up some more of his precious magic. One moment, in particular, stood out: a no-look pass to split open the Swiss defence and send Joo Flix running through the middle. It was a brilliant piece of deception and deserved a better finish than the 19-year-old debutant could provide.
Ronaldo was also guilty of a bad miss in the first half but it would be remarkably po-faced to dwell on that for too long when, ultimately, it was another night that left a football crowd in thrall of his enduring qualities. Ronaldo had the ball as a souvenir and, on this evidence, he will take some stopping when Portugal return to this stadium on Sunday.
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