Ronaldo proves he’s irreplaceable as Portugal’s prodigies fail to live up to the hype

PORTO, Portugal — This was supposed to be the night when Portugal’s newest star, Joao Felix, would take his first steps toward claiming the crown as his country’s most important footballer. The only problem with that is that Cristiano Ronaldo is nowhere near ready to stand aside for his successor, whomever he might prove to be.

Felix, the prodigious 19-year-old Benfica forward, was making his Portugal debut in Porto’s Estadio do Dragao in the Nations League semifinal Wednesday against Switzerland, but the youngster made little impact before being replaced by Goncalo Guedes on 70 minutes. Ronaldo, meanwhile, left the pitch having taken his international goal tally to 88 after scoring yet another hat trick — his 53rd for club and country — to guide Portugal to a 3-1 victory and a place in Sunday’s Nations League final against either England or the Netherlands in the same stadium.

“He is a genius,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said of Ronaldo. “There are genius painters and genius sculptors, but he is a genius in football. Simply a genius.

“When a player scores three goals in a game, of course he makes the difference.”

The young pretenders come and go for Portugal, but Ronaldo remains the one constant. Great news for the here and now, but what happens when Portugal have to find a way to win without him?

He is 34 now, but against the Swiss, he showcased everything that has made him such a world star. The goals, the passes — one blind pass to Felix in the first half was particularly eye-catching — and the stepovers were all there. One moment in the first half saw Ronaldo send Swiss right-back Kevin Mbabusliding in the wrong direction with a piece of whirlwind trickery on the ball, and he capped his night by scoring his hat trick after another stepover shimmy before firing into Yann Sommer’s net.

This was the 10th international tournament graced by a Ronaldo goal, a sequence stretching back to Euro 2004, when a teenage Ronaldo helped Portugal reach the final before losing to Greece.

His 88 goals leaves him within touching distance of becoming only the second footballer ever — after Iran’s Ali Daei — to break the 100-goal barrier in international football and, having won his 157th Portugal cap against the Swiss, he is now a mere 27 short of equalling the world record of Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan for international appearances. Few would bet against Ronaldo reaching both of those figures before he calls it a day with Portugal and, whenever that time arrives, it will be the nightmare scenario for the Portuguese.

Remember Eder, the man who scored the winning goal against France in the Euro 2016 final in Paris? He is no longer on the scene after a fruitless season in Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow. Meanwhile, Andre Silva has not made the cut for Santos’ Nations League squad despite being earmarked as the answer to the Portugal’s post-Ronaldo goal-scoring problems following a breakout Confederations Cup in 2017. The AC Milan forward, who spent last season on loan at Sevilla, might come good again, but there are no guarantees.

And then there is Bernardo Silva. The Manchester City winger’s layoff for Ronaldo’s second goal was worthy of the finish that followed, and Bernardo could certainly form a devastating partnership with Felix in the years ahead. The latter will be a star — that is clear by his performances for Benfica this season — but to expect him to fill any void left by Ronaldo would risk stunting his development as a player in his own right.

Ronaldo is quite simply irreplaceable, even though the sands of time are running out for him.

This was no scruffy hat trick in Porto. Every goal was of high class and execution.

His first, a free kick from 25 yards, should have been saved by Sommer, but it was still a stunner nonetheless, with Ronaldo’s right-foot strike arrowing into the corner that the goalkeeper should have been patrolling. His second, on 88 minutes, was a crisp right-foot shot from 12 yards after Bernardo had pulled the ball back from the touchline, leaving Ronaldo to beat Sommer low at the near post. And the third, after Guedes had released him, saw Ronaldo run goalward before cutting inside and curling beyond Sommer and into the far corner.

“They have a special cherry on the cake and [Ronaldo] made the difference,” Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic said. “He had four shots and scored three goals. We lost because Portugal’s star player showed his star qualities.”

Without Ronaldo, Portugal would have lost this game, and they would not be heading for the inaugural Nations League final in their own country. They have supremely talented players in and around him, but Ronaldo is the one who elevates Portugal to feats of which they would otherwise not be capable.

The time will come when Bernardo, Felix and Andre Silva have to carry the hopes of a nation on their shoulders, but right now, Ronaldo is continuing to keep them waiting for that dubious distinction.

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