Cristiano Ronaldo. Irresistible, irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo.
On a bitterly cold night in Zurich, Mohamed Salah had threatened to steal Ronaldo’s thunder, tilting in his favour a contest that was not so much Portugal versus Egypt but a battle between football’s two most potent players at present.
Many proclaim Ronaldo to be sport’s greatest exponent. Not just now, when he and Salah tot up the goals like kids shooting fish in a barrel, but in the entire history of the beautiful game. A relatively new guy on the block, Salah is considered a frontrunner to wrestle away Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Or.
Friday night at the Stadion Letizgrund therefore offered the opportune moment to stake his claim. Salah seemed to seize it, striking first, grabbing the limelight and delighting what felt the majority of the 20,000 that had braved the cold.
Ronaldo flapped his arms and puffed his cheeks. As the match edged towards full time, he had even slowed to nearly a standstill. Then Ronaldo did what Ronaldo does. Through sheer force of will, he scored the 80th and 81st international goals of an already exquisite career. He moved three behind the famed Ferenc Puskas, just about kept within view the seemingly insurmountable Ali Daei.
Both were headers, both arrived in injury time. The second required the Video Assistant Referee, but there never felt any doubt. The special one came and he eventually conquered. He won the showdown. Ronaldo two, Salah one.
To be fair, he had always been slightly ahead. Not just in achievements and accolades dating back a decade, but during a first half when Ronaldo feinted one way and that, stepped over here and stepped over there, or had an indirect free-kick blocked on the line.
In the 18th minute, he performed a no-look pass with Salah right in front. Right there. The peacock spread its feathers.
For his part, Salah was largely anonymous during that opening 45 minutes. As anonymous as he could be, what with every chased pass, every touch of the ball inducing frissons of excitement within the stands. From the guys dressed as Pharaohs, from the kids holding smartphones and banners, from the women tooting horns. From the men beating drums and swishing giant flags.
Before the game, during the warm-up, the television cameras fixed on Salah and Ronaldo. Their images were beamed across the big screens. Responding, the Portuguese fans chanted “Ronaaaaaaaldo”, the Egyptian supporters “Saaaalaaaaah”. The pair posed together alongside some people who apparently should be posed alongside, yet they exchanged barely more than a handshake.
Initially, Salah caused the old stadium to shudder most, but even before a ball had been kicked in earnest. When the line-ups were read out, over the PA system and above the hum of the crowd, his name elicited the loudest cheer. It was as if a goal had been scored.
Not long before the hour, Salah did find the net. Exchanging passes with Abdallah Said, he stalled his run and, from the edge of the penalty area and beyond the boundary of the Portugal defence, he caressed a curled shot first time inside Beto’s right-hand post.
It was Salah’s 33rd international goal from 57 appearances. Only three Egyptians have mined more.
From there, Salah sparked briefly, but overcooked a through ball or two, never quite at his Liverpool best. On 79 minutes, he was subbed off, ambling towards replacement Shikabala, soaking in the adulation. He grinned wide, drew the bench from their seats, clapped the crowd and took his seat.
Then Ronaldo reclaimed his throne. He headed home Ricardo Quaresma’s first cross, the ball bundled over the line from close range, then stooped to meet his teammate’s second. The net billowed, VAR stunted his celebration, but soon Ronaldo had settled the match. Settled the match and settled the argument.
A freak of nature, he has 23 goals in his past 12 appearances for club and country. Salah was one of the quickest up from the Egypt dugout and down the tunnel. Ronaldo led his colleagues towards the enthusiastic Portugal support behind their goal, another match yielding to his strength of character, succumbing to his bloody single-mindedness.
Salah still has time, of course, and will most probably occupy that space one day. But not while Ronaldo is around, not when this 33-year-old force of nature believes he can sustain to 40. His shadow is long and it is lasting.
It was evident again on a sapping night in Zurich. Perhaps more than anything, Ronaldo loves lording it over a rival. Over us all.