Qatar December 7, 2022: So, now we know. It is not just Manchester United who are better without Cristiano Ronaldo. It certainly helps to state that when his replacement, Goncalo Ramos, scores a hat-trick, the first of the World Cup, and on his first start.
Portugal were completely liberated, playing by far their best football of the tournament, as they overwhelmed Switzerland to set up a quarter-final against Morocco.
But what pressure there must have been on Ramos and how he delivered. “Not even in my best dreams did I expect this,” he said before hailing Ronaldo as his role model growing up.
As ever, all eyes were on Ronaldo and while it was a brave decision by coach Fernando Santos to drop him it was, as with what has happened at United where the striker’s contract has been ripped up after his unconscionable behaviour, the right one.
Rather like United manager Erik ten Hag, Santos has had enough.
Afterwards, he insisted leaving out Ronaldo was tactical rather than disciplinary, but hinted he might have to get on with his new role. “That is still something that has to be defined,” Santos said.
“I have a close relationship with him, I always have had. I have known him since he was 19 at Sporting. Ronaldo and I never misinterpret the human aspect with the manager and player.”
Without Ronaldo, Portugal were fluid, energetic and played as a team, with Joao Felix taking the baton as their creator while Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva were also freer.
It will be fascinating to see how Ronaldo, with his 195 caps and his 118 goals and, above all, his over-arching ego, reacts.
Portugal probably felt like his haven after the turmoil at United, but now he has been left out by his country as well as his club. What an amazing self-engineered fall and especially as Ronaldo, a free agent, had hoped to use this World Cup to find himself a Champions League club. The attention will remain on the 37-year-old. It always does. Even this report does.
As the teams emerged for kick-off, the lenses of virtually every photographer were trained on the Portugal bench, ignoring the players on the pitch.
When the national anthems played and the big screens cut to Ronaldo, there was a huge cheer.
He has been playing poorly and rather than dragging Portugal through, as he has done so many times, he has been holding them back. Still, it was a shock to see him listed among the substitutes.
The last time Portugal started without Ronaldo in a major tournament knockout tie was the semi-final of Euro 2000. He did come on. But only when it was 5-1.
Earlier there were chants of “Ronaldo” – followed by boos as he failed to budge – but it felt as if he was being treated like some kind of tribute act. Santos cannily made sure it was not Ramos who he was subbed on for – that would have been painful for Ronaldo who, at the final whistle, acknowledged the fans on his own before disappearing down the tunnel as his team-mates celebrated. It really is bordering on the pathetic.
And what of Ramos? The 21-year-old from Benfica, wearing the No 26 shirt and who had previously played just 33 minutes for Portugal, was sensational.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">WHAT A STRIKE!! 🤩<br><br>Who saw that coming from Goncalo Ramos!! 🇵🇹<br><br>The 21-year-old only had 35 minutes of international experience before tonight... 👀<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ITVFootball?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ITVFootball</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/FIFAWorldCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#FIFAWorldCup</a> <a href="https://t.co/gll8GEBi2d">pic.twitter.com/gll8GEBi2d</a></p>— ITV Football (@itvfootball) <a href="https://twitter.com/itvfootball/status/1600208814229360653?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">December 6, 2022</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
So involved was he in the goals, he even got an assist for the Swiss as he inadvertently headed on a corner which was bundled home by Manuel Akanji.
His hat-trick was sublime: one goal of power, another all about the movement and the third as cool as you like. He could have had a fourth, but was thwarted by Yann Sommer with a one-handed save.
Not that the Swiss goalkeeper got remotely close to Ramos’s first as he collected a pass from Felix and lashed a brutal left-foot shot from a tight angle that squeezed inside the near post and was still rising as it hit the net.
Ramos peeled away and blew on his fingertips as if they were pistols. In the dugout? The camera did eventually cut to Ronaldo and he looked, well, he looked pensive. Hardly ecstatic, it must be said.
His reaction to Portugal’s second goal, though, was rather different, with Ronaldo racing out with the other substitutes to join in after Pepe leapt high to meet a corner. Maybe it was telling that Pepe, the 39-year-old warhorse recalled because Danilo is out injured, is a long-time team-mate of Ronaldo for Portugal and also for Real Madrid. Cynical? Possibly.
The goals flowed. Early in the second half, Ramos darted towards the near post and stabbed in Diogo Dalot’s low cross before there was a backheel from Otavio, an exchange of passes and a ball from Ramos to tee up Raphael Guerreiro.
The Swiss pulled one back, but there was no chance. They were beaten, and Portugal rammed that home with two more goals. Silva picked out Felix, who weighed a pass into Ramos’s path. Clear on goal, he calmly dinked the ball beyond Sommer. Ronaldo had never scored a goal in a World Cup knockout tie and, here, his replacement had three inside 67 minutes.
But my, did Ronaldo try when he came on. He had the ball in the net, but was rightly pulled up for offside, struck an ambitious free-kick into the wall, and strained every sinew. Instead, though, it was another replacement, Rafael Leao, who scored as he cut in from the left. Ronaldo could only stand and watch.
Portugal (4-3-3): Costa 7; Dalot 7, Pepe 7, Dias 7, Guerreiro 8; Otavia 7 (Vitinha , 73), Carvalho 6, Silva 7 (Neves , 81); Fernandes 7 (Leao, 88), Ramos 9 (Horta, 73), Felix 8 (Ronaldo, 73).
Goals: Ramos (17, 51, 67), Pepe (33), Guerreiro (55), Leao (90+2).
Substitutes not used: Patrício, Palhinha, Andre Silva, Sa, Mario, Cancelo, Nunes, Antonio Silva.
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer 5; Fernandes 5, Schar 4 (Coemert, 46), Akanji 5, Rodriguez 5; Freuler 4 (Zakaria, 54), Xhaka 4; Shaqiri 6, Sow 4 (Seferovic, 54), Vargas 4 (Okafor, 66); Embolo 6 (Ashari, 89).
Goal: Akanji (58).
Booked: Schar, Coemert.
Substitutes not used: Elvedi, Steffen, Omlin, Aebischer, Fassnacht, Frei, Kobel, Kohn, Rieder.
Referee: Cesar Ramos (Mexico).
Portugal vs Switzerland: As it happened