Tonight, the Portuguese National Football Team beat its opposite from the Republic of Ireland 5-1 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. But that was only half of the game’s story. The other half was Cristiano Ronaldo’s form, and by all indications he is playing at no more than 70% of his capacity.
Ronaldo seemed to avoid contact, reacted quickly and poorly to any hard challenge, and picked his moments for a sprint or any other major exertion. With their opening game against Germany just six days away Portugal better hope Ronaldo’s recovery accelerates quite a bit. The good news on his side was that his free kick taking abilities seem unhindered. The striker beat Irish goalkeeper Forte but found the post on a beautiful strike at goal from mid distance that seemed to have the trademark Folha Seca swerve.
The good news is that the team, which was missing a few starters (Pepe most notably), seemed to be in sync with one another the entire first half. That common rhythm extended to Ronaldo himself who helped his team build a 3-0 lead and control both possession and the half’s better opportunities. The star striker was involved in two of his team’s three goals heading a ball that was parried into Hugo Almeida’s path for his second score, and assisting on Fabio Contrao’s cross/shot that ultimately resulted in an own goal.
The second half saw the starters continue on the pitch, a move that seemed designed to see if that rhythm could be maintained and if Ronaldo could at least be on the pitch for more than 45 minutes. The answer to both questions was positive but the star’s output did not surpass his first half effort.
A cheeky quick take on a free kick by Ireland, at the 52nd minute, sent McLean into the box unopposed and he easily curled the ball in past the surprised Portuguese team, most of whom were inside the box determining whether a wall was needed. Bento could not be happy about such a juvenile lapse but perhaps the lesson was needed, and given the result, presumably relearned.
About eight minutes later, Ronaldo attempted a sprint toward goal and absorbed a hard tackle from behind, earning his antagonist a yellow card and the striker another free kick. Again he struck it well and this time Forte’s diving save prevented a sure goal.
Pepe, came in at the 65th minute as a substitute, and Ronaldo came out, as Bento made wholesale changes, obviously pleased with his experiment. Robbie Keane, Ireland’s best striker, also came in at this time and provided Pepe with the challenge his coach needed to see him face. The defender played well and seemed to have recovered better than Ronaldo given Pepe’s movements, rhythm and pace for 25 minutes.
The game was lopsided as the opposition was not at the level of the World Cup bound team, but Ireland was just the tonic. They played well and were a strong enough opponent to keep the Portuguese honest, make them sweat on all sides of the pitch, and in short provide a great test for the injured troops that do seem to be on the mend.
In short, from today’s performance, despite Bento's obvious relief, it would still seem the Portuguese are fated to concede a tough opening match against Germany in their opener. But, they can still rescue their expected second place slot in their group by beating their weaker opponents in the succeeding games.
Frankly, given the way they played today, and who else they will play in their group, Portugal may not need Ronaldo until the second round, and if they can afford the luxury of resting him for about two more weeks, they might just have him reach the Group of 16 with at least 90% of his superlative form. Then, they will be mostly back on track for the splash they all anticipated making when the groups were announced six months ago.