SOCHI —- Spain and Portugal and hat-trick specialist Cristiano all displayed mental steel to match their glorious talent by soaring to a 3-3 draw in what will live on as one of the classiest matches of the 2018 World Cup finals.
Spain twice hit back from a goal down, Portugal managed it once. This is what World Cup football, at its finest, is all about: controversy, drama and brilliant football from the game’s finest.
Only on Wednesday Julen Lopetegui had been shockingly sacked after agreeing to take over Real Madrid after the finals; he had been replaced by sporting director Fernando Hierro who, for all his captaincy years at Madrid, had no coaching history.
But perhaps that matters little for a manager who has masters of the game On which to lean such as Andres Iniesta, Diego Costa, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Isco.
Not only did Spain withstand the managerial turmoil they were forced to go further by twice overcoming the morale-battering concession of goals at each end of the first half to the incomparable Ronaldo.
Real Madrid’s superstar had his own issues: it emerged only hours before the game that his lawyers were close to an agreement over tax evasion charges which would cost him a suspended jail sentence.
Record in sight
Yet the hat-trick with which he ended the match took him to 83 international goals, one short of the European record set by Madrid’s old Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas.
Ronaldo and Portugal had achieved the perfect start when he converted a fourth-minute penalty after having been tripped by Madrid club-mate Nacho.
After all the pre-match turbulence this was the point at which Spain’s World Cup destiny teetered in the balance. Either they would sink out of sight or they would fire upwards to meet the challenge.
They chose the latter option, raised the tempo, subjected the European champions to relentless pressure and forced their way back on terms.
Busquets plays a long ball forward, Costa bullied Pepe to the ground then wrong-footed two defenders and shoot Spain level.
Minutes later the elusive Isco thumped a shot of his own against the bar. Spain claimed a goal but consultation with the video confirmed referee Gianluca Rocchi correct in denying them.
When the equally superb Iniesta was narrowly wide with another effort it appeared only a matter of time before Spain took the lead. Instead it was the remarkable Ronaldo who struck again, one minutes before half-time. His shot was low and hard but De Gea – his hair fashioned in a Loris Karius-style top-knot – let the ball slip through his hands and bobble into the net off his right foot.
The second half began in equally frenetic fashion as Spain seized the lead for the first time in a spell of two goals in three minutes.
Costa stabbed the first from close range after Busquests headed a David Silva lob square across the goal then Nacho made up for his penalty giveaway with a swerving first-time drive which flew into the net off Rui Patricio’s right-hand post.
Spain enjoyed control. The ball glided fluently all around the pitch, with Portugal chasing shadows. Iniesta and Costa were substituted, their job apparently done. But that was to underestimate Ronaldo. Again he was the initial victim of a foul, this time by Gerard Pique. Again he stood up to score, magnificently, with a high-pace curling free kick.
The 51st hat-trick in the history of the World Cup finals was also Ronaldo’s 51st career hat-trick and made him the fourth player to score in four World Cups after Miroslav Klose, Uwe Seeler and Pele.
A clasico indeed.