Scan the fixture list for Qatar’s largest and most luxurious stadium and it gives an indication where their preferences lie. Brazil have played at the Lusail, Argentina too and now it was Portugal’s turn. If it points to the draw of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the deafening applause when the latter was substituted was an illustration of where their affections lie. Briefly, the majority present thought they had got what they had come to see. When Ronaldo leapt highest and the ball nestled in the net, it looked to be the 820th goal of his career, the 119th for Portugal and his ninth in World Cups.
Closer examination suggested that, rather than applying the faintest of touches to Bruno Fernandes’ cross, he had made no contact whatsoever; the lack of his trademark celebration was a clue. If compatriots rarely combined profitably in the red of Manchester United, they had not teamed up to greater effect in the darker hue of Portugal. Instead, the player who remains on the books at Old Trafford ended up with a brace that, on another night, might both have been Ronaldo’s: the captain had been substituted by the time Portugal were awarded a penalty, Fernandes putting the ball under Jose Gimenez and a VAR check revealing it had touched his hand, and, in the absence of the usual taker, rolling in the spot kick. And so Fernandes, not Ronaldo, is now his country’s top scorer at this World Cup 2022.
He has had a direct involvement in their last four goals and it was almost five, plus the first hat-trick of this year’s World Cup. He had a volley blocked in injury time. He drilled a shot against the post. Even without either going in, it continued Fernandes’ productive World Cup: after two assists against Ghana came his first goal at this level and with it further evidence that, for a man without a full-time job, Ronaldo will remain busy for a little longer. Defeating Uruguay secured qualification for the last 16. A further point will guarantee Portugal top the group. They are plotting a path deep into the World Cup, Uruguay facing a swift return home.
Their last World Cup win is against Portugal: their problem is that it was in the last-16 encounter in 2018. Fail to beat Ghana and their tournament is over. Thus far, it has the feel of an anti-climax. They have struck the woodwork three times in Qatar but their wait for a first goal goes on and without at least one, it they will make their earliest exit from a World Cup since 2002.
A logical verdict is that they are too old, but in the battle of the aged, the oldest man on show was Portuguese, and was not the 37-year-old Ronaldo. If Pepe’s reputation can precede him, his selection was nonetheless an achievement as, at 39, he became the second oldest outfield player in World Cup history. The disappointment, for those hoping for a masterclass in snidery, malevolence and mischief, was that he was not pitted against Luis Suarez, with Diego Alonso benching one of Uruguay’s veteran strikers, and replacing him with a man three weeks his junior, in Edinson Cavani.
If the aim was to hope history repeated itself, after Cavani’s brace eliminated Portugal four years ago, it made for a sorry sequel. By the time he and the ineffective Darwin Nunez departed, Uruguay had mustered a lone shot on target.
They were revived a little afterwards: Maxi Gomez had barely come on when he curled a shot against the upright. Suarez, seeking to make up for lost time, shot into the side netting. Guillermo Varela had an effort parried by Diogo Costa.
But Pepe marked his milestone appearance with a clean sheet as Uruguay may have paid for their initial lack of ambition, even if it was shared by Portugal in an uneventful start. There were no shots on target in the first half-hour until, out of nothing, Rodrigo Bentancur embarked on a solo run, sashayed past three defenders and had to be denied by Diogo Costa. Bentancur took it upon himself to provide much of the drive but there was precious little else.
Portugal returned after the interval with more intent. Joao Felix had shot narrowly wide before Fernandes, with a piece of skill, fashioned himself room to cross. Ronaldo served as the decoy in the middle and the deadlock was broken.
Fernandes almost completed his treble. And yet, for many at the Lusail, the abiding memory may be of the first-half moment when William Carvalho volleyed over the bar. His provider was Ronaldo and while his days of showboating can seem consigned to the past in his drive for efficiency, he turned the clock back, deliberately playing a pass with his shoulder. If he has had to use it at times in the past to carry Portugal, with Fernandes in this form, the burden on him is less now.