The 90th minute. This is supposed to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s zone, his particular time-frame for heroics. Witness the end of March in Belgrade, when he seemed to have pulled off the sort of late points-grab that has been a feature of his turbulent 2021.
That night, his Portugal had been hauled back in a World Cup qualifier by Serbia, from 2-0 up at half-time to 2-2. Into stoppage time, with 90 minutes on the clock, Ronaldo lifted an angled shot over the goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic and gave it just enough heft to cross an unguarded goalline.
The Serbian defender Stefan Mitrovic chased the effort, stretched out a leg and cleared the ball, but television pictures showed his rescue had failed by centimetres. Alas, there was no VAR nor goal-line technology in use in Belgrade. No goal was given. Ronaldo was livid, and stormed off the pitch.
Last Sunday night, he left the next chapter of Portugal versus Serbia in a similar mood. In Lisbon, in the last qualifying group game of qualification, Serbia had again come from behind, equalising an early Renato Sanches goal. Portugal needed only to draw to stay ahead of the Serbs at the top of the group and confirm their place at Qatar 2022. But there was to be a 90th minute winner. This time it was allowed to stand, the scorer deemed just onside when he headed in.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, Serbia’s all-time record marksman, had stolen the show, borrowed Ronaldo’s copyright on having the last word, and his goal could yet have devastating consequences for Ronaldo and arguably the most gifted cohort of Portuguese players in history. They are now obliged to take the arduous play-off route to reach the World Cup.
“Football has shown time and time again that it is sometimes the most tortuous paths that lead us to the outcomes we desire,” Ronaldo, the Portugal captain posted after the shock 2-1 defeat that leapfrogged Serbia towards Qatar.
Mitrovic might think his route to making the weekend’s headlines had been a little tortuous, too. He started the night on the substitutes bench, a bold decision by head coach Dragan Stojkovic given the must-win equation facing Serbia and Mitrovic’s record of 44 goals from 69 caps. He is also in breathtaking form: 20 goals for Fulham in 17 matches already this season, 10 of them from his last six outings.
But, at 27, Mitrovic is used to being told almost as much about what he cannot do as a centre-forward as about his virtues as a finisher. He gets questioned about his mobility, and labelled a ‘Championship specialist’ because of the disparity, across what is now an extended career in English football, between his effectiveness in the Premier League and the level beneath.
His club Fulham have been promoted twice and relegated twice in his three and half seasons there since joining from Newcastle, where he spent a season and a half in the Premier League either side of a year in the second tier.
All this yo-yoing between top flight and Championship has tuned him to the distinctions between the two levels, and Mitrovic can scarcely argue that his pugnacious, target-man style is not better suited to the Championship. He averages a goal every two hours of action across his 99 games in that division, a rate that is improving rapidly. In the Premier League, he has only once reached double-figures in a full campaign. He scored 11 goals there for relegated Fulham in 2018-19; last season, another relegation, he managed just three.
Just as Ronaldo, now in his 37th year, hears criticism that he does not do enough pressing and defending off the ball, Mitrovic has been scrutinised in the past for leaving himself isolated up front, against opponents who have more of the ball.
But his impact, for a team in command of possession, as Fulham tend to be in the Championship, is clear, and when he came on for Serbia on Sunday, they too were gradually seizing control against a Portugal whose head coach Fernando Santos acknowledged were “anxious”.
Nor were the Portuguese unaware of the specifics of the Mitrovic threat. In March in Belgrade, he launched the comeback from 2-0 down with a trademark header from a cross. Portugal’s fate would be sealed in the same way in Lisbon.
“It was tough, but not enough to sink us,” insisted Ronaldo, still confident he will make it to a fifth World Cup. “We know what we have to do to get there”. The play-offs mean more suspense - a semi- and then, if successful, a final - and extended drama. Late-career Ronaldo specialises in that.