SARANSK: European champions Portugal had to settle for progress to the second round of the World Cup via runners-up spot after conceding a stoppage-time penalty and being held 1-1 by Iran in Group B in Saransk.
Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty amid all the excitement as they finished second in the table behind Spain just when they had thought victory and top spot was theirs.
Portugal led Iran through a first-half strike from Ricardo Quaresma. However Ronaldo saw a spot-kick saved by Ali Beiranvand early in the second half and Portugal paid the penalty when Iranian substitute Karim Ansarifard converted a stoppage-time penalty for the third-placed nation.
Portugal had been frustrated for 44 minutes in the first half by a well-organised Iran who also looked dangerous on the break.
But the game’s first goal came with a piece of magic from the boot of former Chelsea loanee Quaresma in the 45th minute.
The winger cut in from the right flank, played a one-two with a team-mate, and then curled a right-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area into the far top corner with the outside of his boot.
Play in the second half was repeatedly broken up by fouls, VAR incidents and strong protests in response to tackles from both sides.
The VAR controversy began early in the second half with the awarding of Portugal’s penalty, which was eventually saved by Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand, diving to his left to deny Ronaldo.
The Real Madrid striker had gone down under the challenge of Iran’s Saeid Ezatolahi and, after originally waving away appeals, Enrique Caceres rightly reversed his decision to award the spot-kick after checking VAR.
Ronaldo’s subsequent miss meant he remained on four goals for the tournament, one behind England striker Harry Kane, who leads the race for the Golden Boot.
The game became heated after that decision with both sides asking for further reviews but its next use again involved Ronaldo.
Attempting to get in front of Morteza Pouraliganji, Ronaldo appeared to catch the Iranian in the face with a flailing arm.
After a lengthy stoppage while he watched replays on the VAR pitch-side TV monitor, the referee deemed it only worthy of a yellow card.
Iran’s Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz, who managed his country at the 2010 World Cup, suggested the referee chose not to send off Ronaldo because of the forward’s high profile.
Queiroz said: “In the rules, an elbow is a red card, it doesn’t matter if it’s Lionel Messi or Ronaldo.”
Portugal coach Fernando Santos played down the incident, saying: “I wasn’t concerned [about Ronaldo]. It seemed like a normal thing in the match and the referee did what he had to do. I think the VAR did its job and that’s what we have to accept.”
The most controversial decision came in second-half stoppage-time and resulted in Iran’s penalty.
Iran played a deep cross towards Sardar Azmoun and from close range his knock-down hit the outstretched arm of Portugal defender Cedric Soares, who was jumping to head the ball.
Again the referee took his time in making a decision and once again changed his original call, ultimately choosing to award a penalty.
Even after Karim Ansarifard had scored Iran’s controversial penalty, winger Mehdi Taremi could have won the game with a chance in the fourth minute of stoppage time, but he hit the side-netting with his effort from inside the penalty box.