It was a night of anticipation and excitement in Sochi’s Fisht Olympic Stadium as the big, Iberian
neighbours clashed for the first real box-office encounter of the World Cup in Russia. And it would be an understatement to say that the forty thousand capacity crowd had their Russian rubles worth.
The blueprint of the match was laid out well before the match itself, when Spain filled the pitch with five world class midfielders behind Diego Costa, meaning it was going to be a long night of chasing for the Portuguese and they would probably have to rely on counter-attacks to have any sniffs at David de Gea’s goal.
One such attack, in the fourth minute, found the Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo dribbling at Spain right-back, and his Real Madrid colleague, Nacho inside the penalty area, and it took just a quick step-over to lure the Spanish defender into fouling Ronaldo for a penalty, which was calmly converted by Ronaldo himself. As Spain settled down and began knocking the ball around in their usual efficiency, it was an uncharacteristic method which found them the equaliser.
A seemingly harmless long-ball from Sergio Busquets should have been dealt with by Pepe but
instead Diego Costa latched onto it, teased at both Jose Fonte and the covering Cedric in the area,
before letting out a wonderful driven shot in the bottom corner, and out of nothing Spain were level. And they would have remained that, if it wasn’t for the howler from the ever-reliable David de Gea, who failed to hold onto a straight-forward shot from Cristiano Ronaldo, and the ball ricocheted into the net, giving Portugal the advantage just before half-time.
Spain started the second-half strong and David Silva’s chipped ball from a free-kick found the head
of Busquets at the far post, who headed it back across goal for the looming Diego Costa to tap in his
and Spain’s second. It was all Spain since then, and just 3 minutes later after pinballing in the
Portugal area, the ball popped up for the incoming Nacho who struck a sweet half-volley that hit the
post and went in. Spain were ahead and comfortable, as the clear momentum shift coupled with
Spain’s masterful passing seemed to have drained out the energy from the Portuguese. Well, all of
them except one, of course. As Pique fouled Ronaldo just outside the area 3 minutes from time, you
knew the stars had aligned for one more moment of brilliance. And brilliance it was from Cristiano
Ronaldo, who stepped up to take the free-kick and curved it into the top corner past a helpless David de Gea to score his 51 st career hattrick and Portugal’s equaliser.
The proceeds were shared at the end of a breath-taking encounter, which the World Cup so
desperately needed after a Russian walk-over on Saudi Arabia and two uneventful matches that
followed it. As commentator Clive Tyldesley rightly said, “The world has watched this brilliant game but Cristiano Ronaldo has owned it.” What a match it was to set the World Cup well and truly alive!