Ronaldo proves he is still king in battle against Mohamed Salah
ZURICH, Switzerland -- There was a moment just before the opening whistle when Cristiano Ronaldo stood near the center of the pitch, staring straight ahead, into the back of Mohamed Salah. It was not hard to imagine Ronaldo's thoughts, but perhaps only he could see them translated into such clear reality.
Ronaldo headed home two goals in four minutes of extra time to give Portugal a 2-1 win over Egypt on Friday. After 90 minutes, such an outcome seemed, to the 20,000 fans in Letzigrund Stadium, unlikely at best. They should have known better. Ronaldo had made his intentions plain from the instant he had plotted the game's course in Salah's turned back.
It felt a little strange, like some accident of circumstance, that two of the best goal scorers on the planet -- the two highest scorers across all competitions in Europe's top five leagues -- would face each other in a friendly on a cold, dimly lit night in Zurich.
There is almost daily speculation that the ascendant Salah, landed by Liverpool at a relative bargain last year, will now be sold on to Real or Barcelona. Despite its low stakes, this World Cup warm-up had been billed, somewhat strangely, as Salah's audition for the Spanish giants. His season has probably made the fuller case.
Ronaldo was the more purposeful and determined of the pair for most of the match. He held the ball more, took more shots and nearly scored on a lacing first-half free kick. Early in the second half, he made a beautiful no-look pass that left the Egyptians, including a nearby Salah, flummoxed.
Moments later, Salah took his turn on the same patch of grass, eluding his own humbled pursuers with a four-touch display.
It was a little like watching two great dancers trying to claim the same slice of floor.
Ronaldo's greater efforts went unrewarded into the second half. That's when, in the 56th minute, Salah found the ball at the top of the Portuguese box. He passed it to his left to Abdallah Said, who held it just long enough for the Portuguese defense to abandon Salah. Said returned the ball. From just outside the box, Salah struck a perfect one-timer with the most clinical left foot in the game. It was a finish in his most classic form -- not a rocket but an arrow, aimed with precision low and to his left.
Ronaldo looked disgusted. Perhaps he knew the story that would be written: that the gap between the two men was closing. Maybe it was already closed.
Salah has been on a season-long campaign for equivalency. He's scored 36 goals for Liverpool, including a league-leading 28 in domestic play. He scored four in his last match against Watford, playing what amounted to football's version of a perfect game. He was so dominant, he seemed more embarrassed than elated by his fourth goal.
Ronaldo, in contrast, had scored just four league goals in the first half of his season and, at 33, heard whispers that he was past his peak. He did not like the sound of them. Now he has scored 37 goals for Real in all competitions, including 21 goals in his past 11 matches. After Salah's four-goal performance, Ronaldo went out and somehow scored four goals of his own against Girona.
He did not appear to be embarrassed by any of them.
The game against Egypt was an uncanny replica of Ronaldo's late-winter reassertion. He scored both his goals by heading home long Ricardo Quaresma crosses, one from the left and one from the right, one very late and one even later. The celebration of the second was delayed for a moment by a video review, but the officials soon confirmed what everybody else knew, including Salah, by then watching from the bench: Ronaldo had won again.
It was a second, somewhat lesser version of football's most compelling individual battle. Whenever Salah is compared to the world's best, the consensus choice is Lionel Messi. Physically they are similar -- both are deceptively average-appearing, whereas Ronaldo looks capable of comic-book strength -- and spiritually, they are, too: Salah and Messi are both less obvious about their ruthlessness.
What Ronaldo has on them both is his force of will.
Neither he nor Salah spoke after the game, but Ronaldo walked off the pitch as though his performance had said everything that he wanted to be said.
For most of the night, it had seemed certain that the time will soon come when the distance between these two men will be so much a memory, it will feel as though it was never there at all.
It took Ronaldo all of four minutes to push back that timetable. Even if the divide between Salah and him is less than it once was, it is still there. And on a cold, suddenly starlit night in Zurich, Ronaldo proved that he will fight to keep his supremacy until the end.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.