Juventus football star Cristiano Ronaldo fired a spectacular hat-trick to send Portugal to the first ever Nations League final.
Ronaldo sent a reminder of his sporting brilliance just as his country was turning its focus elsewhere.
The focus had been firmly on Portugal’s young rising stars ahead of this semi-final, Joao Felix handed a senior debut while both Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva were high up the billing.
So much so was the limelight away from the famous No7 that not one question was posed to either manager about the Juventus forward on the eve of the game. He noticed, opening the scoring with a moment of brilliance from a first half free kick.
That could well have been enough to secure passage if it weren’t for the VAR madness just short of the hour. Portugal were ready to double their lead from the penalty spot before a review saw a soft decision moments before awarded for the visitors, Ricardo Rodriguez firing and seemingly sending the game to extra time. Ronaldo, though, didn’t like the sound of that. Two goals in two dazzling late minutes put the hosts on the brink of claiming this maiden title.
After flashing a first-time effort wide just after the ten minute mark Ronaldo, much like the game, went quiet
Xherdan Shaqiri, fresh from Champions League glory with Liverpool, was doing his best to spark something in the Swiss, nearly sliding one under Rui Patricio after a mess of headers inside five minutes before dropping deep and looking to drag the Portugal midfield into a bind, but little was coming together, Uefa onlookers in need of a helping hand.
It was inevitable, when making a first appearance in this new competition, that Ronaldo would have his say.
On a day in which allegations against him of sexual assault were back in the news, a case in which the player denies all charges, Ronaldo’s focus will have been positive headlines, and he went about securing them in trademark fashion.
Having not caught the eye since that fluffed chance early on, Ronaldo looked to make his mark, dancing past one white shirt before being cut down by Kevin Mbabu on the edge of the area, a clear free kick.
Everyone in the stadium could tell you what was going to happen next, but there was nothing keeper Yann Sommer could do about it. The Portuguese fired the ball goalward with wicked dip and left Sommer rooted to the spot.
His moment of brilliance looked to have Portugal safely in the first ever Nations League final, with the game meandering on without serious incident until VAR left the home support incredulous.
Swiss forward Steven Zuber saw his appeals waved away by referee Felix Brych, who moments later was awarding one to the hosts. The ball placed on the penalty spot and Ronaldo ready to add his 87th goal for Portugal, only for the VAR to intervene and, after a lengthy break with no replay for fans in the stadium, award the Swiss a lifeline after a very soft nudge from Nelson Semedo on Zuber was picked up upon review.
Rodriguez stepped up and would not be denied by Rui Patricio, the Wolves keeper getting a touch to the left-footed spot kick but unable to stop it.
It took the hosts a while to regain their heads, and there was no sign of those in red turning the screw, this was a game in need of an individual capable of rising to the moment. Cue Ronaldo, for the second time.
Just as watches were glanced at with extra time looming in Porto Silva forged his way down the right and cut back through a crack in the Swiss defence. The Manchester City forward had teed up his teammate in the first half and seen the chance wasted, no such problem this time. A flick of the right boot and Portugal were in the final.
That, simply, was not enough for Ronaldo. The statement not big enough. There was no help for his third, charging down the left, leaving Manuel Akanji twisted beyond belief, he wrapped the ball around Sommer once more and into the far corner.
What is happening in courtrooms away from football cannot be forgotten, but on his stage Ronaldo is still unflinching.
England and the Netherlands may be the favourites with the bookies to win in the final, Ronaldo will want his say there too.
Source: Evening Standard