A stodgy contest morphed into a thriller and, cutting through it all, Cristiano Ronaldo managed to own the story. At times it felt most of the stadium was willing him to score and they were ecstatic to see their wish granted when he converted a penalty midway through the second half, becoming the first player to score at five different World Cups. Against most expectations it opened the floodgates, André Ayew equalising for a decent Ghana side before João Félix and Rafael Leão responded quickly with clinical finishes. Osman Bukari’s late goal was not enough to capture the headlines for Ghana.
Record-breaker or not, the chances of Ronaldo facilitating a narrative that did not concern him were always going to be vanishingly small. Before kick-off he had stood directly in front of the throng of photographers present to aid analysis of his every spit and cough; he must surely have known what he was doing as he faced in the opposite direction, that number seven in full view of the lenses, while taking a drink.
Equally there was never much chance he would absent himself from the on-pitch action although he would probably have planned happier outcomes from two early chances that, at full tilt, he would surely have buried. He was played onside by Alidu Seidu for the first, which saw Otávio send him into yards of space. There was time as well as open grass but a heavy first touch allowed Lawrence Ati-Zigi to block his effort.Quick Guide
It was a good opportunity but had nothing on his second. When Raphaël Guerreiro crossed from the left, Ronaldo leapt with the awesome power and certainty that bring only one outcome. Ati-Zigi should have had no chance but was saved by a glitch in the matrix: from four yards, Ronaldo somehow headed wide of his left post.
Only 13 minutes had been played but Ghana did not look especially keen to deviate from their plan to sit deep, often with a flat back five, and seek rare opportunities on the break. It brought scant reward before the interval, partly because of Mohammed Kudus’s inability to exploit promising positions. Kudus could have sent Iñaki Williams, a high-profile newcomer to the cause, clear midway through the half but undercooked his attempted pass.
Ghana have the tournament’s youngest squad but began to discover some defensive savoir-faire. Portugal probed but ran aground against a back line marshalled by Leicester’s Daniel Amartey and Mohammed Salisu of Southampton. Ronaldo found the net shortly after the half-hour, to the short-lived delight of the thousands expecting a show, but was penalised for a push on Alexander Djiku.
Rafael Leão scores Portugal’s third goal against Ghana. Photograph: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters
Félix spooned over and João Cancelo sent a ball fizzing across but, when the teams went back in, Portugal could reflect that their performance had deteriorated since Ronaldo’s aberrations. Ghana had gained enough confidence to win a couple of corners, even if they did not manage an attempt on Diogo Costa’s goal.
Seidu sent over a dangerous cross in the 52nd minute and, moments later, Kudus broke through the middle before sending a daisy cutter wide. There was the sense a toe-to-toe contest had broken out. Ronaldo tried to correct that impression but, briefly offered room down the left, could not channel the pace that has long deserted him.
Portugal’s bench howled for a red card when Félix went down after a coming together with Seidu but the officials chose not to inflate the incident. They were soon worked more briskly. Ronaldo appeared to have been slow on his heels again but snicked a toe on the ball just before Salisu could make contact on the left side of the box. Ghana protested; his fall had been dramatic but a decision in his favour was just about correct. Ronaldo thrashed the spot-kick past Ati-Zigi, let the public lap up his trademark celebration and ensured a meandering Portugal were off the hook.
Or so it seemed. Ghana had been marginally the better side since the break and showed no ill effects. Kudus warmed Costa’s palms and then, found in space, arrowed across a centre that ricocheted through Danilo Pereira’s legs and gave Ayew a tap-in. Ronaldo waved his arms in the air.
He need not have worried. Within seven minutes Portugal had the game won, both times capitalising on loose Ghana possession and breaking at speed. Bruno Fernandes was the catalyst, first threading a ball through to Félix that Baba Rahman could not cut out. Félix is having a mediocre time with Atlético Madrid but here his clipped execution was exemplary. Within seconds Fernandes had driven through midfield and slipped in Leão, who announced himself on this stage with a bending low finish with his first significant touch after coming on.
Ronaldo was promptly withdrawn, affording him his latest ovation, but the substitute Bukari’s smart header postponed the victory lap. A frantic finish ensued, Williams robbing Costa before slipping, but Portugal held on.