MONDAY'S BIG HEADLINES
Ronaldo kicks off as Portugal face play-off pain
There are clearly some benefits to having Cristiano Ronaldo in your team. Primarily the mountains of goals he is guaranteed to score as one of the greatest players to ever walk the planet. But there are some drawbacks too. One of which being that when you lose a game he (a) won’t be happy about it and (b) won’t be shy to let everyone know about it.
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The latter scenario blew up after last night’s astonishing home defeat for Portugal to Serbia in World Cup qualifying, with Aleksandar Mitrovic scoring right at the death to send his team directly to the 2022 World Cup and enforce the indignity of a play-off on one of the greatest players of all time.
Match reports and full-time score graphics were adorned with images of Ronaldo looking furious; GIFs did the rounds of him shaking his head. Every post-match reaction from Ronaldo is imbued with such heavy significance, even when it doesn’t really merit it.
And sometimes it does merit it, such as this clip from Brazilian TV which showed Ronaldo kicking off at his manager, Fernando Santos, following a wickedly dramatic night of World Cup qualifying. It’s even accompanied by a suitably ominous slow-mo replay, even if the passing of a cameraperson annoyingly deprives us of the ability to know for sure whether Ronaldo snubbed his manager’s handshake.
When Portugal win, Ronaldo is the story, and when they don’t, he’s the story too. That’s the territory which comes with being one of the most famous people on the planet. Although Santos did his best to come up with a semi coherent explanation as to why his best player was gesticulating quite so angrily in his direction.
"Nobody was explaining anything," Santos said. "He was telling the other guy that there [in Serbia] he had scored a goal at the last minute and that the referee didn't count [it]. That's what he was saying at the time. On the field, he said that we scored a goal there and the referee didn't, but it's his outburst. It's perfectly normal. Now no one goes after a game to explain what happened or didn't happen. I went to raise the players' heads."
Santos also rather bravely - or perhaps rather foolishly - made the bold declaration that Portugal are “guaranteed” to still qualify for the World Cup. The Warm-Up is no expert but this doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a football manager should be saying.
"The truth is that we did not have a good performance overall," Santos said. "Therefore, we have to say sorry. The Portuguese people are obviously sad. Not more than us, but just like us.
"But my team will be at the Qatar World Cup. That is guaranteed. We just have to compete in the play-offs which is not common for us. Portugal never went through a play-off with me, but they played it on three occasions and qualified for the finals in all of them.”
There is a genuine chance that the second best player in history won’t be at the World Cup - even if Santos won’t allow himself to believe it’s possible.
Why isn't every qualifying campaign like this?
It was a fairly remarkable day all round as what can often be quite a laborious qualifying process suddenly transformed into a glitzy high-stakes gameshow with a winner-takes-all round right at the end.
Croatia and Russia went head to head for a place in the finals in the afternoon, the former prevailing thanks to a single own goal, and as Portugal and Serbia did likewise in the 7:45pm kick-off, at the same time Spain and Sweden were also involved in a nervy death-match where the equation was that Spain needed a draw and Sweden needed the win.
Which made it all the more frustrating that Sweden manager Janne Andersson waited until 73 minutes to summon Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the bench, especially as the visitors were creating chances, with Emil Forsberg and Alexander Isak guilty of some notable misses.
In the end, Ibrahimovic’s main contribution was an assault on Cesar Azpilicueta in the box which somehow went unpunished, and it was the rather less heralded Alvaro Morata who instead made the telling contribution after coming on as a sub.
However the real star of the show was Barcelona’s latest manufactured, pint-sized genius Gavi, who lit up the night with a quite spectacular performance. How is it possible that one of the players The Warm-Up most wants to see at the World Cup is a 17-year-old with 14 senior appearances for his club? This kid is absolutely a special talent.
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IN THE CHANNELS
Unfortunately for Stephen Kenny and his team, Ireland have left little imprint on World Cup qualifying. However they did conclude the campaign on a relative high last night with a 3-0 home win over improving Luxembourg.
The highlight of which was not any of their three goals, but this remarkable save by goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu.
Only 19, Bazunu joined Manchester City from Shamrock Rovers in 2019 and is currently on loan at Portsmouth. You are going to be hearing a lot more about him.
It’s England v San Marino today. So let’s be honest, you already knew this was coming. It’s the reason Davide Gualtieri still gets drinks bought for him in the bars of San Marino
More World Cup qualifying groups come to a close and England need only a point against San Marino tonight. The more engrossing climax comes in Group C though where Italy and Switzerland are locked together on 15 points, with the former having a goal difference advantage of just two.
That means a nervy evening is on the cards and we will have live text coverage of both matches as Italy travel to Northern Ireland and the Swiss host Bulgaria looking to run up a big score.
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