Fernando Santos made a monumental call but it paid off for Portugal as Goncalo Ramos helped them embrace a Cristiano Ronaldo truth Man Utd recently realised.
“More and more people are asking a striker to be more complete. People thought that a striker is only there to score goals and the rest doesn’t matter, but I think over the last few years that image is fading a little bit.”
It was an understatement from Goncalo Ramos, speaking in September; the interpretation of the modern striker role has almost entirely shifted. The focus is on those who can press rather than those who are prolific. The demand is for fluidity, not finishing. They create, they drop deep, they drift wide, they defend. They are the first line of defence, able to seamlessly and constantly transition into attack.
What came before feels fossilised rather than “fading”.
In the interest of fairness, no country will have understandably struggled with that change in perspective more than Portugal. Having a national team built specifically around a forward painstakingly designed in a goalscoring laboratory will do that. A two-decade diet of country-wide Cristiano Kool-Aid was never going to be easy to reverse. But this was a fine start.
“It is increasingly important for a striker to be more in the game and contribute more to the team, to connect the game, to put pressure on,” Ramos added in that interview two months ago. After talking the talk, he certainly walked the walk in a World Cup last-16 stroll for The Navigators.
Piers Morgan will doubtless have appreciated the publicity; that his was the name trending on social media as a result of Ronaldo being omitted from Portugal’s line-up is a damning indictment of both star and star-f**ker. Both seem to be suffering from a case of Difficult Second Album Syndrome after massaging one another’s egos with The Single Biggest Interview Ever: one is off to definitely-not-Champions-League-club Al-Nassr, while the other had his next chat with Richard Keys and Andy Gray.
Speculation was rife as to whether Fernando Santos made the call as a result of another Ronaldo petulance upon the 37-year-old’s substitution against South Korea, or just as a general reaction to the player’s recent detrimental performances.
As with the case of Erik ten Hag and Man Utd, perhaps it was simply a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.
For that decision to work, Ramos had to step up. It was a considerable weight to place on the shoulders of a 21-year-old making his first international start, and whose entire Portugal career before kick-off comprised of 33 throwaway minutes in the past three weeks.
And for a risk-averse manager, Santos was rolling the dice blindfolded: Portugal have lost just two of the 20 games Ronaldo has missed since Euro 2016, but both of those defeats were against Switzerland, the most recent of which came in June.
The last time Portugal had started a tournament game without Ronaldo was also against Switzerland – a group dead rubber at Euro 2008. The last time Portugal had started a tournament knockout game without Ronaldo was the Euro 2000 semi-final defeat to France, a match which took place 11 months before Ramos was born and three years prior to Ronaldo being capped.
As the spearhead for a generation stepping out into the unknown without their talisman, Ramos was sensational. A stunning finish was lashed past a dumbfounded Yann Sommer at the keeper’s near post after 17 minutes; Diogo Dalot’s deflected cross was put through the Swiss No.1’s legs shortly after half-time; an impudent dink over his onrushing victim for the evening completed the World Cup’s first knockout stage hat-trick since Tomas Skuhravy at Italia ’90.
What was peppered in between relegitimised Portugal as a force to be reckoned with. Pepe proved that advancing age alone is no barrier to this team, making it 2-0 with a powerful header from a corner. Raphael Guerreiro completed a glorious move with an excellent finish, assisted by Ramos. Rafael Leao added a layer of sheen and got in on the act – the pick of official 6-1 cliche is yours – with a quite splendid curling effort in stoppage time.
The masterful performance of Joao Felix only added to the sense that Portugal’s next era beckons.
Ronaldo – or, to give him his apparent nickname for the night of “a certain Portuguese striker” – was allowed his moment. The first of five substitutes Santos introduced in the final quarter of an hour, he came on to rapturous applause. He treated a fawning crowd to all the hits: a long-range free-kick slammed in to the wall and the most obvious offside goal in tournament history sent those who came out in search of a celebrity home happy.
As for the rest of us, those who watch the game for the goals, the passes, the tackles, the skill, the tactics and the technique instead of the constant cutaway TV shots to a substitute, Portugal provided a feast for the eyes and a peek into the future. Ronaldo’s every move was documented to an excruciating degree, but he belongs to a historic, sport-defining, fading past; Ramos is the complete successor his country needs now and, on this brilliant basis, in the years to come.