Football

Fernando Santos hails ‘football genius’ Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal star bags hat-trick to drag his side into Nations League final

Portugal coach Fernando Santos called Cristiano Ronaldo a "football genius" after his 53rd career hat-trick ensured a 3-1 win over Switzerland in Porto, sending hosts Portugal into the final of the Nations League yesterday morning (Singapore time).

The hosts had to withstand a huge moment of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) controversy in the second half with Portugal 1-0 up via Ronaldo's 25th-minute free-kick.

In the 57th minute, Portugal thought they had the chance to double their advantage from the penalty spot.

Instead, German referee Felix Brych reversed his initial decision and awarded a spot-kick at the other end for an earlier incident, which Ricardo Rodriguez converted to seemingly send the game to extra-time.

However, Ronaldo predictably took centre stage as he struck twice in the final two minutes to set up a final clash with England or Holland, who meet in the second semi-final this morning.

"In terms of adjectives to describe Ronaldo's game - I've used many. I was his coach in 2003 and I could see where he'd go," said Santos.

"He's a genius. There are genius paintings and sculptures and he's a football genius!"

Portugal made it to the last four without their all-time record goalscorer as Ronaldo took a hiatus from international football to concentrate on his first season at Juventus.

However, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner returned to the national team fold in March and was always likely to be the centre of attention, particularly on a day when it was reported that a rape lawsuit against him had been dropped.

A lawyer for the American woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted by Ronaldo - accusations he has strongly denied - later dismissed that report, saying the case had not been dropped.

In front of an adoring home crowd at the Estadio do Dragao, the 34-year-old put the spotlight back on his performance on the pitch as he opened the scoring with a brilliant free-kick.

The Portugal captain, however, is no longer his country's only star name, with Bernardo Silva starring for Manchester City, where he could soon be joined by Joao Felix.

City are reportedly set to pay Felix's 120 million euro (S$184.3m) buyout clause from Benfica, but the 19-year-old missed a glaring chance to mark his international debut with a goal just before the break as he blasted over from Ronaldo's pass.

Silva, however, shone and was the creator for Ronaldo to drill home his second of the night two minutes from time.

Moments later, the hosts sealed their place in the final on the counter-attack as Ronaldo curled into the far corner for his 88th international goal.

Ronaldo's consistent brilliance left Silva unsurprised.

Said Silva: "We're used to this kind of thing, he's been doing it for ages and it isn't a surprise to anyone now.

"He scored three… nothing new for him. He's often the difference-maker."

Former England and Marseille winger Chris Waddle agreed, saying on the BBC: "You expect that every game from Ronaldo. Switzerland were playing well but he is a top-class goalscorer and all three of them were good goals.

"Years ago, he was a dribbler with bags of pace but now he is a goalscorer and he has kept himself so fit."

OLYMPIC ATHLETE

Former Blackburn Rovers striker Chris Sutton, meanwhile, likened Ronaldo to an Olympic athlete.

He said on the BBC: "He is so hungry and he still moves like an Olympic athlete. He is 34 and he has no right to move like that...

"It's a possibility that he could carry on playing until he is 40. He was the difference on the big stage once again."

Even Switzerland's own star man Xherdan Shaqiri admitted Ronaldo was the difference between the sides, but insisted the Swiss were the better team in Porto.

He told Sky Sports: "We were the better team, for sure. We had more from the game.

"But, in the end, the efficiency of Cristiano Ronaldo decided the game. That was the difference today."

His coach Vladimir Petkovic agreed, highlighting Ronaldo's ruthlessness in front of goal.

He said: "(Portugal) had street smarts, they had the cherry on top of the cake... (Ronaldo had) four shots, three goals."

Football