MANAUS, Brazil – For nearly 95 minutes at Arena Amazonia on Sunday night, the best player in the world was decidedly average. Unfortunately, a few seconds were all Cristiano Ronaldo needed to break American hearts.
Apart from a seeing-eye cross in the final seconds that put a game-tying header on a platter for Silvestre Varela, the kind of world-class moment the Portuguese is known for, Ronaldo was largely quiet after a week spent speculating about his fitness ahead of what amounted to a must-win game for Portugal.
When he did manage to get on the ball in dangerous places, the Ballon d’Or winner peppered Row J with shot after errant shot. When he thought he might find room to operate, to lope into the open field, the United States surrounded him or employed the odd tactical foul to stunt his progress.
And when the game ended, a 2-2 draw that saw Ronaldo take seven shots but put only one on goal, he stormed off the field, a superb tactical effort from the Americans frustrating the man who was supposed to be the top dog in Group G.
“He’s a player that needs to be looked after,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told reporters after the match. “Coach [Jurgen] Klinsmann and his staff had an exquisite gameplan. I thought we executed it brilliantly.
"Portugal didn’t hurt us, really. We had the better passage of play. You look at two goals that, realistically, can be prevented. It’s not as if they opened us up and sliced us open.”
That certainly wasn’t the case on the first goal, when Miguel Veloso’s tame cross landed at the feet of Nani after Geoff Cameron’s disastrous attempted clearance just five minutes in. And, of course, the US will kick themselves for allowing Ronaldo space to cross late as well.
But otherwise, Klinsmann’s plan worked to perfection on a swampy night on the banks of the Amazon. The German’s primary weapon in the battle against CR7? Jermaine Jones.
“Did you see the game? Then you can see that the coach switched me from left to right to make that side more closed for Cristiano,” Jones told reporters. “Everybody knows that he has a good strike and he always cuts inside and tries to shoot with the right foot. My job was to close that gap that he can’t always come inside.”
Along with Fabian Johnson, whose marauding runs down the right flank also kept Portugal head coach Paulo Bento from unleashing Ronaldo, Jones harried the Real Madrid superstar.
Unlike against Sweden last fall, when he scored four times in a two-game playofff series to send Portugal to the World Cup, Ronaldo was never alone. He never built up a head of steam. Apart from a few tricks in the early going, he never showed the kind of game-changing ability that fueled Portugal’s qualifying campaign and Real Madrid’s run to a Champions League triumph.
“I think we did a great job not allowing him in dangerous spots,” center back Matt Besler told reporters. “He never really got into a rhythm.
"I wouldn’t really say our gameplan was to foul him. I think there were a few times where we did foul him, but it wasn’t over-physical play. … We were just right up against him, making him feel us.”
But it only takes a split second for Ronaldo to change a game. As well as the US played for an hour-and-a-half, they simply couldn’t keep the world’s best silent long enough to record the win that would have sent them on to the knockout stage.
“It’s just funny, the last play of the game he finally gets into open space, which he wasn’t allowed that the entire night,” Besler said. “And instead of trying to take someone on one on one, he takes a touch and whips in a world-class ball.”