Ronaldo gets the gold with Silva lining
- Portugal did not need Cristiano Ronaldo to go toe-to-toe with Virgil van Dijk as Bernardo Silva propelled them towards Nations League glory.
In the 28th minute it happened. The titanic confrontation we'd all be waiting for. Virgil van Dijk blocked a shot from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Except, things never really heated up from there. Of course they didn't. That was never really Ronaldo's intention.
The build-up to this match, where a 1-0 win over Netherlands crowned Portugal the inaugural Nations League champions, focused on how the how battle between Europe's best defender this season and the continent's greatest international goalscorer of all time might play out.
Ronaldo has five Ballons d'Or and is hungry for a sixth, although there is a growing clamour for Van Dijk's imperious displays with Champions League winners Liverpool this season to be recognised.
Earlier incarnations of Ronaldo – think of the Madrid-bound Manchester United tyro who signed off with a 2-0 Champions League final defeat against Barcelona, but not before cramming a ludicrous number of shots into the opening 10 minutes – would have charged headlong into the Van Dijk confrontation.
But the 34-year-old version loiters on the fringes of games. Player of the Tournament Bernardo Silva was the attacking inspiration as Portugal tightened their grip on the opening 45 minutes, all twinkling feet and bustling energy. Bruno Fernandes fired five of the hosts' 12 shots before the break in something of a quantity over quality contribution.
Ronaldo still occasionally indulges such trigger-happy tendencies. Silva covered 13.7 kilometres in Manchester City's Premier League win over Liverpool this season, work that Ronaldo would certainly not see himself having any part of nowadays
Why should he? For all their stylistic differences, this is the big late-career convergence between Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
They've seen these patterns of play, these ebbs and flows over and over. They know they are better than pretty much anyone else who has laced boots. Why get involved in the hustle and bustle more likely to magnify the ravages of age when you can watch, wait and produce game-sealing brilliance?
Ronaldo's hat-trick in this week's semi-final was a fine demonstration of that approach in action, thumping home a free-kick and seeing the game drift before going bang-bang late on to seal the deal.
The other side of this equation is ceding absolute control of events. When Messi's Barcelona were ransacked by Liverpool in the Champions League, he appeared a victim of circumstances his team-mates could not bring back into his gasp. Ronaldo had a similar experience against many of his Sunday opponents when Ajax did for Juventus.
OBRIGADO A TODOS OS PORTUGUESES pic.twitter.com/3EEijrhqzK— Bernardo Silva (@BernardoCSilva) June 9, 2019
Thankfully for him, with the relentless Silva at his side, this chance to lift silverware before an adoring public was never likely to pass him by.
Where Frenkie de Jong was able to bend England to his will in midweek, the Dutch midfield master found himself more concerned with events behind him in Porto. Which pocket of space was Silva going to dart into next? When would he stop running? Would he ever?
The silky touches thrill those in the stands, but it is Silva's sheer relentlessness that make him a nightmare to play against. Like an immaculate classic car powered by a thundering and unfailing diesel engine.
He snuck between the lines decisively with an hour played, teeing up Goncalo Guedes for a fabulous finish.
In the end, there was no need for Ronaldo to engage in the heavyweight tussle when Portugal's brilliant bantamweight was going through his repertoire, even winning headers against Matthijs de Ligt in his own penalty area and weaving around De Jong again to run down the clock.
Head coach Fernando Santos still thinks Portugal will be able to call upon a 37-year-old Ronaldo at the 2022 World Cup. The sight of the superstar forward embracing Silva immediately after the full-time whistle suggests he knows just how important his country's latest world-class star will be in effectively realising that dream.