Ronaldo ready for World Cup
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Cristiano Ronaldo made his long awaited return to football and his impact was obvious in Portugal's 5-1 rout over Republic of Ireland, despite the 2014 Ballon d'Or winner not being at his vintage best.
Somewhere in the Iberian Peninsula, the more than 10-million people who reside in his home country are thanking the heavens that their prayers were answered.
Up until Tuesday, when sources confirmed to ESPN that Ronaldo will be fit in time for Portugal's opening World Cup match against Germany, concerns were raised about 29-year-old's reported knee tendinosis and other ailments that slowed him considerably toward the end of Real Madrid's season.
Over the past week, football fans had become accustomed to seeing Ronaldo participate in almost everything but what he does best. From attending Saturday's fight betweem Miguel Cotto vs. Sergio Martinez, to practicing with the New York Jets and learning how to throw an American football after several awkward attempts, it appeared as though Portugal would be forced to go through all of their World Cup tune-up matches without their biggest threat.
But his return on Wednesday night at the MetLife Stadium in front of 46,063 spectators -- the majority of whom wanted to see the world's most famous No. 7 -- signaled a positive for both the player and the national team.
"I think it's great for the team, he played well tonight," Nani, Ronaldo's teammate, said after the match. "He showed tonight that he's good and well [physically]. He did a couple of good things on the pitch. I think in the first game, he'll be 100 percent."
As Nani alluded to in his remarks, Ronaldo was back on the pitch for Portugal. But it's clear that he'll need to work on his match fitness ahead of Monday's game. His rustiness was particularly evident in the opening 15 minutes when an awkward first touch on a ball from Joao Moutinho caused him to slip and fall on his backside.
But Ronaldo appeared to be motivated by his embarrassing mishap and for the remaining 30 minutes he asserted his influence despite not getting his name on the scoresheet.
If his first minutes back in action were tentative, almost appearing to be cautious, the confidence that makes him so deadly took form after. He blazed past Ireland's Stephen Kelly just outside of the penalty box to launch a cross that deflected on Richard Keough for an own goal in the 20th minute, pushing Portugal's lead to 2-0.
Shortly after, Ronaldo kept on searching for opportunities to score or create goals. In a moment that maybe signals he has confidence in his still-recovering knee, he skied in the air trying to head in a corner that was narrowly blocked by opposing keeper David Forde. The shot was so precise, however, that Portugal's Hugo Almeida was able to easily tap in the rebound to give his team a commanding 3-0 lead.
It's a credit to Ronaldo's otherworldliness that in just more than an average half he was able to provide two assists (Ronaldo was subbed out in the 65th minute). And that might be more value to his teammates than his scoring ability, which is not to be understated with 424 goals for both club and country.
It should be acknowledged that Portugal played against a team ranked 70th worldwide and features a roster of Everton's Aiden McGready and bunch of players from the second division. But there's no denying Ronaldo's ability to draw multiple defenders and create spaces and, more importantly, scoring chances for others. The team scored only once in their past matches against Mexico and Greece and lacked imagination on the offensive end.
Portugal's detractors might point to the team's five-goal outburst as further proof that it is a one-trick pony. But at this stage they have to ride their prize horse into the World Cup's infamous Group of the Death -- Group G -- and hope for the best.
"It's a tough group, but when you're in the final stages of the World Cup you have to challenge the best teams, so we are ready for that," Nani said.
Confidence comes easy when your team includes arguably the world's best player.