Of course it will go down to the last day. Any adventure featuring Cristiano Ronaldo has a strong chance of turning into a late, suspense-heavy cliffhanger, whether it’s people wondering how long his late-career flourish can last, or how reliably his late goals can keep rescuing his club, Manchester United.
The nail-biting drama starring Ronaldo this week concerns Portugal, who he will captain through his 181st and 182nd caps. By the end of Sunday he hopes to have helped them seal automatic qualification for what, fitness permitting, will be his fifth World Cup, in Qatar in 12 months’ time, when he will be approaching his 38th birthday. But slip up, against Ireland on Thursday night or, crucially, at home to Serbia on Sunday, and Portugal will be consigned, as second-place finishers, to a detour via the complicated system of play-offs that will fill Europe’s three remaining places at the tournament.
Serbia lead Group A of Uefa’s qualifiers, one point ahead of Portugal, who play their match in hand in Dublin. Ireland are out of contention, though the Portuguese have reason still to be wary. In September, Ireland led the Portuguese for 44 second-half minutes in the Algarve after Ronaldo had had a penalty saved early on. The climax of that fixture was pure Ronaldo: he equalised in the 89th minute; he scored the winning goal in the sixth minute of stoppage time.
But those three points felt like small compensation for the points dropped in Belgrade against Serbia back in March, when Portugal were on the wrong side of a comeback, and Ronaldo on the wrong side of a poor refereeing decision. In Belgrade, two Diogo Jota goals put the Portuguese 2-0 up, and in command of the group; two second-half Serbian goals turned the tables.
A dreadful line call in stoppage time then denied Ronaldo a trademark late winning goal, when his angled shot was scooped clear by Serbia defender Stefan Mitrovic from a position television replays revealed was behind the goal-line. But there was no goal-line technology in use, nor VAR and the referee’s assistant had ruled it was not a goal. Ronaldo was enraged, storming off the pitch before the final whistle.
That ‘missing’ goal has shaped the group standings, and left the final matchday, Sunday’s Portugal versus Serbia showdown in Lisbon, on a knife-edge. But Portugal head coach Fernando Santos insisted on Wednesday the climatic fixture would not prey on players’ minds in their penultimate fixture, against Ireland.
“This game is not the less important of the two, it’s the most important,” Santos said, “because the result against Ireland will dictate what we should expect from our next opponents.”
A win in Dublin would give Portugal a two-point lead in the group, and so oblige Serbia to come out on the attack at the weekend. If Portugal lose on Thursday, Serbia would go into the last game knowing they need only a draw to finish top.
Six Portugal players, including Liverpool’s Jota and the Manchester City pair Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo, are at risk of suspension for Sunday should they get booked in Dublin. Santos will not be persuaded to rest any of them with that in mind: “I trust all my players.”
He singled out Cancelo, who has provided four assists from left-back in City’s last two matches, for special praise. “At the moment, he is the best full-back in the world,” believes his national head coach.
Cancelo’s club colleague Bernardo Silva, a beneficiary in the 2-0 win over Manchester United of Cancelo’s precision service, will be rested, so he can recover from minor muscle strains in time for the Serbia match. “He arrived tired because he’s played a lot recently, and wasn’t able to train on the first day with us,” explained Santos, “so he stayed behind to work with the physios. Hopefully, he’ll train with us when we get back and be available. The signs are good.”
Ditto the form of Portugal’s fit forwards. Jota, RB Leipzig’s Andre Silva and AC Milan’s Rafael Leao have all been among the goals in the Champions League this season, as has Ronaldo, specialising in crucial late strikes for United.
The Portugal captain also has 13 goals from his last 10 internationals, and needs no reminding that if he hadn’t had one ruled out incorrectly in Serbia, the figure would be higher - and the obstacles in this, the last week of group-phase qualifying, far smaller.