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15th Jun 2018

World Cup Comments: Spain and Portugal step up to give us a World Cup game for the ages

Some moments in life leave us disappointed, this was not one of those moments

Reuben Pinder

World Cup fever level: buying vintage Spain shirts on eBay

The start of the 2018 World Cup was never going to be as thrilling as the week building up to the tournament. Often, when you’re looking forward to an event, the excitement peaks just before it starts, as the desire for whatever thing that may be to deliver sets unrealistic expectations.

You could argue that the first three matches of this World Cup proved that, as the opening game featured one bad team battering an even worse one. The following games were not particularly exhilarating either, as Uruguay scraped past a conservative Egypt and Iran were gifted a win by Morocco after 90 very dull minutes.

The evening game was always going to deliver though. It was expected to be one of the best matches of the group stage, yet it still managed to exceed expectations. Any possibility of a cagey first half was removed when Nacho Fernandez gave away a penalty in the opening five minutes. When Cristiano Ronaldo slotted it home on his favoured right hand side, you just knew that we were in for a treat.

Little did we know just how much of a treat it would be.

Spain suddenly woke up, put aside all the drama surrounding their camp, and turned on the style. Their slick passing juxtaposed by Diego Costa’s uncompromising physical style and utter bastardry up top gave them different options to attack with.

As it turned out, it was Costa who kept them in the game, with a magnificent solo goal that had you urging him to shoot for about five seconds before he unleashed a rocket to Rui Patricio’s right. Game on.

Portugal were then handed another goal on a silver platter, with garnish and all, as David De Gea channeled his inner Rob Green, spilling a shot from Ronaldo into his net, prompting comparisons with Loris Karius’ howler in the Champions League final.

Spain piled on the pressure and managed to equalise once again through Diego Costa, who demonstrated his poacher’s instinct, as his outstretched leg poked the ball home from point blank range.

And just three minutes later, as if the match were following a Disney script, the ball dropped into space, bouncing so invitingly, begging to be hit. Who popped up to strike it? Of course. Nacho Fernandez. It would have been easy for him to panic and send the ball into row Z, but he kept his calm and unleashed a beautiful swerving shot. His redemption was complete.

The match finally took a lull, allowing us the chance to actually breath after a relentlessly end-to-end hour of football. But Cristiano Ronaldo was not going to allow Portugal to lose this match, not in a million years. As he received his ball with his back to goal, he peered over his shoulder, awaiting any contact from Gerard Piqué that would allow him to buy a free kick.

Ronaldo doesn’t score free kicks anymore, not really. Not with the frequency that he used to anyway. He has gone from pinging beauties into the top corner for Manchester United to pinging monstrosities into the corner of the crowd’s faces. But such is his tendency to step up in the big moments, that you felt this would be different. This one he would score. You just knew.

His run-up was not his usual deep breath, tip toe and put your laces through it technique. This time, he was more delicate, more calculated, and it was spectacular. The trajectory of the ball could not have been more perfect.

Every tournament needs a game like this in the opening days. Four years ago is was Spain’s capitulation against the Netherlands that rocked the world. This time it was a rollercoaster of an hour and a half that showcased the best and worst aspects of each team.

Portugal’s lack of pace at the back, Ronaldo’s mind-boggling reliability in the big moments, William Carvalho’s utter refusal to sprint. Isco’s dribbling, Busquets’ line-breaking passes, Diego Costa and Pepe resuming their Battle of the Bastards.

Life doesn’t always live up to your expectations. All too often we sit in anticipation only to be left disappointed. But this was not one of those moments. This was not a disappointment.

Instead, it was expectation, excitement, World Cup fever and technical excellence incarnate over the space of 90 perfect minutes which we will never forget. Above all, it was the game that started this World Cup in earnest, and we could not be more excited.