SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Cometh the hour, cometh the man and where football is concerned there is no man quite like Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Real Madrid forward was superb in Portugal’s 3-3 World Cup draw with Spain on Friday, giving his team the perfect start with a penalty, putting them 2-1 ahead and popping up at the death, cool as you like, to whip home a free kick and complete a magnificent hat-trick.
“I have said it so many times,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos told reporters. “Cristiano is the best in the world.”
The hottest debate in football over the last decade has been between those who think Ronaldo is the greatest and those who prefer Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
With both players now into their 30s – Ronaldo is 33 – the Russia World Cup could be the last chance for them to stake their claims at international level and the Portuguese made the best possible start.
His three goals against Spain made him the oldest man to score a hat-trick in the World Cup Finals and only the fourth to net in four consecutive global showpiece tournaments.
Known for his impressive physique, Ronaldo is often criticized for his preening but on a warm and humid night by the Black Sea, coach Santos lauded his striker not for his muscles but for his mind.
“More important than his physical form is his mental form, he has incredible mental endurance,” Santos said. “He is in great physical shape and has an incredible mind and that is what makes him one of the best in the world. He raised the team, he had absolute trust in the team.”
In a television debate this week, Brazilian great Tostao called Messi the better of the two stars but his assessment came with a kicker that rang all the more true after Friday’s man of the match performance.
Ronaldo, he said, “is perhaps the greatest goalscorer in the history of football”.
No one who watched his clinical performance in Sochi could disagree and they will be eagerly awaiting more.
The good news is there is almost certainly more to come.
When the pressure is on, Ronaldo is the main man.
Reporting by Andrew Downie, editing by Ed Osmond