Cristiano Ronaldo lit up the World Cup finals with a stunning hat-trick, as Spain and Portual put on a six-goal thriller.
The Real Madrid superstar became the oldest man to score a World Cup treble at 33 years and 130 days as Iberia’s finest shared the spoils in Sochi.
Ronaldo fired the Seleccao into a fourth minute lead from the penalty-spot, coolly converting past David de Gea after being brought down himself by Real Madrid teammmate Nacho, lured into a challenge by Ronaldo’s dancing feet.
Spain looked at sixes and sevens during the early throes; a rapid counter saw Ronaldo square for Gonzalo Guedes to strike at goal, but the PSG youngster fluffed his lines, while Ronaldo saw a vicious freekick blocked after Sergio Busquets had been cautioned for a late challenge.
Spain were under pressure and Sergio Busquets’ punt forwards after 22 minutes was the sign of a side struggling. Ironically, it set up the equaliser.
The up and under landed between Diego Costa and Pepe, the ex-Chelsea man wanted it more in the battle of the dark artistes, Pepe was left holding his face and Costa held off a challenge and threw two defenders a dummy before rifling past Rui Patricio. Pepe complained, the VARs did their job and Spain were level.
From that moment, Spain, unbeaten in their previous 20 matches – all under Lopetegui – took charge. Isco began to dazzle, Andres Iniesta weaved through midfield and their rhythm was found.
Isco thundered a stunning volley off the crossbar which bounced down off the bar onto the goalline, while Iniesta steered an effort wide after outstanding play down the left involving he, Costa and Jordi Alba.
But on the stroke of half time, as they looked to be rocking, Fernando Santos’ side retook the lead, Ronaldo’s 20-yard daisy cutter being spilled into his own net by De Gea.
However, to the Manchester United stopper’s rescue came ex-Chelsea man Costa.
Antonio Conte may have deemed him too much trouble to endure for more than one season, but a player that has also experienced more than a few teething problems at international level showed why he’s now first choice by levelling 10 minutes into the second period.
Again, it was very unlike Spain. A freekick from 35 yards was drifted past the far post, where Busquets got above Guedes to nod across goal, for the onrushing Costa, who could hardly miss.
Spain were very much back in the ascendancy and within three minutes they had turned the game on its head, with Nacho atoning for his penalty giveaway with a blistering Spanish third.
The magnificent Isco, Iniesta and Alba were again impish down the left side, but Portugal thought they’d cleared the danger when the cross was headed out to the right.
However, onto it steamed the Madrid rightback, deputising for club colleague Dani Carvajal, and he let fly a crisp, crushing sledgehammer strike that whistled past Patricio and in off both posts.
Only once have Portugal beaten Spain in a competitive international – in Lisbon at Euro 2004 – and from the moment they fell behind at Fisht Stadium, they never looked like changing
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the move,” Mike Tyson once said; Spain showed they could roll with the punches and fight back, but Portugal certainly didn’t like the taste of their own blood.
Until, with three minutes remaining, Gerard Pique gave away a freekick 25 yards out with a nonsensical challenge on Ronaldo.
The 33-year-old dusted himself down, stood in that familiar pose, ran up, and fired home his third of the game with an truly outstanding freekick that curled inside De Gea’s left-hand post.
Now, the tournament is well and truly up and running. Here are five talking points from Sochi….
1. Ronaldo wins De Gea battle
As Ronaldo prepared to take his early penalty, De Gea elected to attempt to put off the Portuguese superstar.
Needless to say it didn’t work; Ronaldo held his nerve and wrapped his penalty into the net, sending De Gea the wrong way in the process.
He celebrated by rubbing his chin, an apparent not so subtle dig at De Gea’s attempts to ice him.
Ronaldo was always going to be one of the matches main protagonists – after all, when is he not?
Few would have felt De Gea would play as big a role and particularly in the manner he did, a flimsy attempt to hold Ronaldo’s tame low strike on the stroke of half-time seeing the ball spin into his own net.
On the day news broke that he has agreed a new five-year deal at Old Trafford, that is unlikely to have been how he would have liked to celebrate.
For good measure. Ronaldo added the 51st hattrick of his career, leaving De Gea routed to the spot, with a brilliant late equaliser.
2. Portugal add technical approach to their game
In many ways, Portugal’s Euro 2016 success was what the tournament deserved after being expanded to 24 teams.
Santos’ side drew all three group matches, lurching into the second round as a third-place side, and went on to win the competition after winning just once in normal time.
Their inability to break down lesser opposition was very much a theme – as it had been at the 2014 World Cup – but since their win in France, Santos has really stepped up in terms of putting out a side that is flexible, creative and capable at opening up opponents.
The return of Bernardo Silva (injured two years ago) has helped, as has the growth in the intervening period of a number of players who add different touches to the attack: Guedes’ trickery, Andre Silva’s centre-forward play, Gelson Martins’ drive and Bruno Fernandes artistry.
Alas, it wasn’t enough here, but will give them hope of still getting through the group.
3. Diego’s delight
A bull of a striker, the Atletico Madrid hitman endured a miserable World Cup in the country of his birth, Brazil, when rushed into the Spanish set up four years ago.
But now he appears very much at home and in sync with the midfield magicians operating behind him.
A forceful, bruising, talismanic presence when he wants to be, he set the tempo of Spain’s press when they didn’t have the ball, and bullied the Portuguese centre-halves throughout the encounter.
His second goal was that of a poacher, shoving aside a defender before tapping home, but it was his first which was Costa at his best, a mix of power, precision, technique and no little devilment.
4. Isco’s light shines again
Two of the best individual performances of the 2017-18 season, anywhere, came from Isco. Both were in Spain shirts: the first, in the 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Italy last September, and the second, in the 6-1 friendly destruction of Argentina in March.
This didn’t quite match those two virtuoso displays, but it wasn’t half bad.
The boy from Benalmadena was at the centre of everything that was good about Spain, whether it be moving the ball quickly, playing through opposing lines with clever triangles, intelligently drawing fouls or with driving solo runs. He wasn’t far from an early goal of the tournament contender either, with his first-half effort that clattered the bar.
His heatmaps at Real Madrid this season have shown that he has been given greater responsibility to roam all across the pitch and that was the case here, the 26-year-old operating mainly from theposition but moving both laterally and vertically.
Throughout, Portugal couldn’t get a handle on him.