Mixed fortunes for Ronaldo; Portugal continue to be reliant on their star
KAZAN, Russia -- Man-of-the-match awards at major tournaments are not renowned for their originality but it still seemed a questionable move when, amid a chaotic finale to Portugal's 2-2 draw with Mexico, FIFA announced that Cristiano Ronaldo had been voted the game's stand-out player.
Ronaldo had not been bad at all; he created one goal and was involved in another and also hit the bar in the first half. But singling him out simply brought him into focus -- where none more was really needed -- and cast into fresh light the question that had hung over the build-up to one of the Confederations Cup's more appealing fixtures: Is Ronaldo really about to leave Real Madrid? What is clear is that nobody is any the wiser following this game.
As man of the match, Ronaldo should have joined the managers in addressing the media; instead he failed to appear. "Treatment" was given as the reason, but there was no obvious ailment when he was ushered swiftly through the mixed zone -- where the media carry out interviews with players -- 10 minutes later.
A short statement to FIFA's in-house television reporters, lamenting that his team "suffered at the last minute" due to Hector Moreno's late equaliser, was the only material anybody had to go on, though Ronaldo later said there was no need for Portugal "to sound the alarm" in relation to the result.
Portugal had closed ranks around their captain, and it is perfectly understandable: They are here to win the tournament. A media circus surrounding their most important player is the last thing required by manager Fernando Santos, who made a point of drawing a line under the topic in his pre-match news conference and did not address it afterward. Ronaldo has proved impervious to external noise throughout his career, but any possible sources of agitation are always best minimised.
Ronaldo's most expressive work came on the pitch and with the ball in play. Upon emerging for the warm-up he greeted a particularly enthusiastic section of the Kazan Arena crowd with a cursory nod of the head; there was serious work to be done and, after a sloppy start by Portugal, he eventually asserted a measure of influence.
It was his snap-shot from the edge of the area, rebounding from the woodwork, that fell into the path of Joao Moutinho in the move that led to a correctly disallowed opening "goal" by Pepe. The strike was ruled out following advice to referee Nestor Pitana from the video replay team.
Of greater consequence was the astute piece of vision later in the first half, which set up Ricardo Quaresma for a strike that counted, even if the speed and power that used to characterize Ronaldo initially failed him. In previous years his 50-yard run might have taken him through on goal; this time the Mexico defence caught up but his composure in laying the ball off was a reminder of his enduring quality.
"When Cristiano was able to run, that put Mexico on alert and we should have done that more often," Santos said after the game in his only reference to Portugal's talisman. "But our players aren't machines."
You wonder whether that is actually true of Ronaldo, whose ability to keep going remains extraordinary. His second half display was far quieter although it was his ball for substitute Gelson Martins that led to what should have been the 86th-minute match-winner from Cedric Soares.
The reminder from this game, yet again, was that Portugal remain reliant on Ronaldo to an unhealthy degree. Santos has been attempting to phase in a new generation of players but it was a slight surprise to see newly signed AC Milan striker Andre Silva, who has made such a successful start to his international career, limited to a cameo off the bench, during which time he forced Guillermo Ochoa into a fine save.
Manchester City new boy Bernardo Silva, meanwhile, remained on the sideline. While last summer's combination of Nani, Quaresma and other veterans clearly works, a harsh reading would be that Portugal risk missing an opportunity to impose a coherent pattern of play for the long term. They were second-best on the ball here, although they enjoyed the bulk of the chances and, on the balance of the second half, possibly deserved to win the game.
"We were at least as good as they were and they're the current European champion," said the Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio. In general play he had a point and that is a concern for a Portugal side that needs to show soon that it can accommodate its exceptional young talent.
For now it remains Ronaldo who rules the roost. Portugal's next assignment will be against Russia, in Moscow amid what will certainly be a more boisterous atmosphere than the generally lukewarm vibe inside a sub-capacity Kazan Arena.
He might have genuine competition for a share of the focus as the hosts face a critical hurdle in their own campaign; here, though, not even two uses of the video assistant referee system (VAR) could shift the curiosity away.
Portugal will probably need performances more befitting a man-of-the-match gong from Ronaldo if they are going to win this competition; they will also be praying that the rumbling narrative from Spain eases up a little over the next fortnight.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.