Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring the second goal of his hat-trick against Switzerland. Photograph: TF-Images/Getty Images
What more can be said about the man? He is 35 on his next birthday and even the greats reach a point when the only opponent they cannot beat is their age. Not Cristiano Ronaldo, though – or not yet, anyway, judging by the latest demonstration of his rare knack to bend football matches to his will.
If England can make it past the Netherlands to reach the final on Sunday it is fair to say they were provided with new evidence here of what they probably knew already: that to stop Portugal, first you have to stop Ronaldo. Gareth Southgate had sent his assistant, Steve Holland, to Porto to try to work out a way of making that happen. When the report lands on the desk of England’s manager it will tell him it is a lot easier said than done.
Ronaldo certainly timed his hat-trick goals well, the last two coming in the 88th and 90th minutes, just as it had seemed as though Switzerland were going to take the night into extra‑time courtesy of a bewildering VAR penalty decision. Ronaldo had other ideas, scoring with two splendidly taken right-footed finishes to deliver another show of his greatness, just the way he likes it.
This was his 157th appearance for Seleção and, knowing what the man thinks of himself, he is probably already looking at the world record, set by Ahmed Hassan of Egypt, with 184 caps. Still some work to do yet but don’t bet against the day coming when Ronaldo adds that feat to his already extensive list of achievements. Ronaldo being Ronaldo, don’t even rule out the possibility of him becoming the world’s first 200-cap player.
Many of the supporters here wore Ronaldo masks. Some held up home-made posters asking for his shirt or, in the case of one middle-aged women, a piece of embroidery showing the legendary CR7 six-pack.
The moment arrived, 25 minutes in, when the Swiss right-back, Kevin Mbabu, slid in to give away a free-kick just outside the penalty area. Ronaldo positioned the ball strategically some way further back, more than 25 yards from goal. He blew out his cheeks, puffed out his chest, glowered at the ball and then put his laces through it in such a way the shot dipped viciously over the five‑man defensive wall. Yann Sommer, Switzerland’s goalkeeper, did not even move and Ronaldo was setting off on his victory run, celebrating his 86th international goal.
Perhaps there was a measure of relief for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, too, because it was a look of genuine embarrassment on his face when Bernardo Silva set him up for the first opportunity of the night and he could not hit the target. It was a poor attempt by anyone’s standards – by Ronaldo’s, it was perplexing, to say the least. Not that he has ever been the type to dwell on a bad miss when there is still plenty of time, as he showed here, to make amends.
That chance came in the 11th minutes and both teams could already have been reduced to 10 men by that stage if the German referee, Felix Brych, had not been so lenient. Bruno Fernandes was not even booked for the wild follow-through that caught Mbabu just beneath his right knee and, a minute or so later, the Swiss captain, Granit Xhaka, had his own reprieve for the two-footed challenge that came down on top of Nélson Semedo’s foot. It was not a bad-tempered match but they were both challenges in the modern game that should have warranted red cards.
Switzerland could consider themselves unfortunate to be behind when for long spells they looked the more dangerous team. Xherdan Shaqiri thrived in his central role, operating just behind Haris Seferovic, who clipped the top of the crossbar with one effort late in the first half.
All the time, however, there was the possibility that Ronaldo could conjure up some more of his precious magic. One moment, in particular, stood out: a no-look pass to split the Swiss defence and send João Félix running through the middle. It was a brilliant piece of deception and deserved a better finish than the 19-year-old debutant could provide.
Eight minutes into the second half Ronaldo had the ball in his hands, waiting to take a penalty after Fabian Schär had upended Bernardo Silva. Except this was the game’s big controversy, and when the referee went to the VAR monitor he decided it was Switzerland’s penalty because of Semedo’s innocuous challenge on Steven Zuber in the previous attack.Advertisement
It was bizarre, not least because Zuber had tripped himself. Ronaldo had to hand over the ball and Ricardo Rodríguez levelled the match from 12 yards. Yet it was Ronaldo, ultimately, who had the telling impact.