Three Points: Portugal defeat Ghana
BRASILIA, Brazil -- Three thoughts on Portugal's 2-1 win over Ghana on Thursday; both nations exited the World Cup after the group stage.
1. Ronaldo, all-American hero
While a nation of soccer fans celebrated, the scorer's face was almost blank. Cristiano Ronaldo's goal secured American progress but little for himself. All Portugal had achieved was to deny Ghana.
Keeper Fatawu Dauda's poor handling allowed Ronaldo to score, but Dauda was soon denying a Ronaldo shot that, if it had gone in, would have made things very interesting indeed. Both Dauda and Ronaldo can count themselves as all-American heroes for their contributions to the place of Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. team in the round of 16.
As opposed to rain-sodden Recife -- where USA took on Germany -- bright and breezy Brasilia offered perfect conditions for the Portugal-Ghana match. With both teams having much to play for, even allowing for the influence of events farther north, this was an open encounter. It ebbed and flowed with the permutations until reaching an unsatisfactory conclusion for both.
Portugal, needing a deluge of goals for a potential tiebreaker, failed to take advantage of their early dominance except for their single first-half strike. Shortly after German star Thomas Muller scored vs. the U.S., Ghana were given genuine hope when Asamoah Gyan headed in Kwadwo Asamoah's cross for an equaliser.
One more goal and Ghana might be through. They piled on the pressure; Majeed Waris should have done much better with a free header. Talk of this being a squad without spirit was belied by the stepping up of their game. They did not appear to be a team ready to take the money and run. Could they, just as in 2006 and 2010, deny Team USA's World Cup dreams? The Americans must have thought they had finally got their revenge, but the Ghana curse looked as if it could continue. Uncle Sam can thank Dauda and Ronaldo for the continuation of the United States' Brazilian adventure.
Gyan's goal was his sixth in World Cup matches; it made him his continent's leading all-time scorer, surpassing the great Roger Milla in doing so. One of the heroes of 2010, Gyan came to this party, too. He will have to wait until 2018 to add to his total.
2. Ghana pay for past sins
A news conference on Wednesday included revelations about millions of dollars in cash being flown in to unpaid players, and then came Thursday morning's breaking news on the suspension of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari after infighting.
Africa has suffered in Brazil. Cameroon were pathetic; Ivory Coast failed yet again to reach the round of 16; and Ghana, despite featuring in two of the tournament's classics (vs. USA and Germany), failed to match their achievements in 2010 (quarterfinals) or 2006 (round of 16).
The real damage was done in losing to Team USA; the profligate finishing, the hopeless marking that let John Brooks score the late winner. All after total domination of possession. That late Miroslav Klose strike when Ghana led Germany in Fortaleza was even more costly, perhaps, though a draw was the right result.
Against Portugal in Brasilia, Ghana were spirited -- too strong-arm for Ronaldo's liking at times, he took a hell of a buffeting -- yet the same problems were their undoing. They were often on the edge of the Portuguese 18-yard box, but that was where the move broke down. Over-hit crosses, shots from silly angles and decent Portuguese defending were their downfall. As Ghana pushed toward the end of the first half, Christian Atsu was hugely wasteful when Andre Ayew was in free space.
Gyan's goal appeared to open an escape path, before familiar problems closed off the route.
3. Hollow victory for Portugal
Pepe, the Brazilian who is a naturalised citizen of Portugal, was booed by the locals for his change of nationality, though his style of play hardly makes friends, either. Ronaldo, by contrast, was always enveloped in cheers whenever he was on the ball. An early cross-shot -- it was difficult to discern whether it was deliberate -- had fans enraptured when it rattled from the crossbar, with Dauda beaten.
An early trademark free kick was bundled away by Dauda after Agyemang Badu had attempted a reducer tackle on the danger man. Ronaldo was determined to do his bit, no matter the unlikely permutations for Portuguese progress. When his header from a superb Joao Pereira cross was saved by Dauda, Ronaldo looked to the heavens in disbelief, while Dauda, with the ball still in play, celebrated as if he himself had scored a goal and ran toward fans in jubilation.
The obvious narrative with Ronaldo's international career is that he is surrounded by inferior talents. Only Joao Moutinho approaches his stratosphere, while the gigantic Eder is leagues below the standard of galacticos Ronaldo plays with at club level. Eder is an eager runner, but his lack of skill makes West Ham flop Modibo Maiga look like Marco van Basten. As for Nani, his presence on the ball is a guarantee of exasperation. None of the decent crosses that Eder or Ronaldo could feed off came from Nani; Pereira and Miguel Veloso supplied those. There was also an outing for Nani's party piece -- the shot that rattles into the stands when colleagues are well-placed.
The first goal was never going to come from that source. Instead, it was great skill under pressure and in controlling a bouncing ball by Moutinho that set up a pass to Veloso, whose cross was hit with such excellence that Ghana's John Boye could only deflect it for an own goal. With Dauda at that time winning his duel with Ronaldo, it was a boon to Portugal. The star man was forced to come deep so often that he was too rarely found in the positions from which he scores his truckloads of goals for Real Madrid.
The goal glut Portugal needed to put any pressure on the Americans in Recife never arrived. In any case, Ghana's goal by Gyan ended any distant hopes of Ronaldo extending his stay. With the raw materials that Ronaldo has to work with when playing for Portugal, it was hardly a surprise.