Hard not to feel sorry for Ronaldo

This was supposed to have been Cristiano Ronaldo’s tournament. His heroics against Sweden had taken Portugal to the finals.

Hard not to feel sorry for Ronaldo

Now, world footballer of the year, fresh from winning Real Madrid that coveted 10th European crown, his great rival Lionel Messi reduced by injury to merely mortal status... the stage was set.

Ronaldo is not the easiest player to like. That silly posing for publicity shots after a far from brilliant performance in the Champions League final confirmed a widely-held opinion of an egotist forever in search of his next advertising contract.

Yet it was hard not to feel some sympathy as an exhausted Portugal dragged themselves from the pitch in Manaus on Sunday night.

His footwork and feints had bamboozled the Americans, but always too far from goal to carry real menace. That feared right foot twice lashed the ball skywards rather than into the top corner. Two, three, four times he was caught offside as Nani and Miguel Veloso tried to put him through.

As time was running out, and with Portugal 2-1 down, he switched to centre forward but his legs lacked the spring he needed to direct headers on target.

Then finally, literally in the last seconds, came one moment of true quality; not an attempt on goal, but a marvellous looping cross from the right, angled to perfection and met so perfectly by Silvestre Varela’s diving header that it almost ripped the net.

In another context it would certainly have been worth a celebration, from both scorer and creator, possibly even a little pose. This time, not even a smile. On the touchline manager Paulo Bento looked on stony-faced.

The point kept Portugal in the tournament but to describe it as a lifeline would risk complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. To the Portuguese players it must seem more like a noose.

With the usual proviso “anything can happen in football” Ronaldo was first up with the post mortem: “Portugal were never favourites and honestly I never believed we could be world champions,” he said yesterday. “We need to be humble and realise the capacities we have. At present there are better teams than us. We have limitations and injuries.”

Ronaldo was among those struggling for fitness before the tournament. “It would have been easy for me not to come to the World Cup and end the season as a European champion,” he said. “No one comes without wanting to show off their football, to shine, to run. That’s unthinkable for this group of players, but there are things that you can’t manage.”

Given the sense of failure in the Portuguese camp it would be easy to overlook the qualities and character of the United States performance. Going behind early on because of some crazy defending was a real body blow, especially on a sweltering night.

Their comeback was deserved.

They seem better organised and more tactically mature than previous US sides. That partly reflects the improving standards of domestic football in the MLS and partly the influence of their manager.

Jurgen Klinsmann has often divided opinion and continues to do so. He took a big risk in dropping the veteran Landon Donovan from his squad, but so far he has gotten away with it.

The Germans were critical of his tactical naivety during his two years in charge of the Mannschaft, when Germany’s current boss Joachim Low was his assistant. Germany captain Philipp Lahm is on the record with some scathing remarks about lack of preparation and the players being left on their own to decide tactics.

Add the German-American Factor to the mix — Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, Timothy Chandler and Fabian Johnson were all born in Germany and Julian Green represented Germany at U19 level — and there could be a definite edge to Thursday’s encounter in Recife.

Klinsmann insists his team won’t be playing for a draw, although a point would be enough, and there is no reason to disbelieve him.

All the same it won’t be a huge surprise if the two teams go through the motions if they are level with 10 minutes left.

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