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Rampant Ronaldo and sparkling Spain serve up an Iberian classic

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Portugal and Spain at Fisht Stadium on June 15, 2018 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
by Keir Radnedge, AIPS Football Commission Chairman
SOCHI, June 15, 2018 - Spain and Portugal and hat-trick specialist Cristiano all displayed mental steel to match their immense talent by soaring to a 3-3 draw in what will live on as one of the classiest matches of the 2018 World Cup finals.

This, on only Day Two, is what World Cup football, at its finest, is all about: controversy, drama and brilliant football from the game’s most skilled exponents.

Only on Wednesday Spain coach Julen Lopetegui had been sacked, shockingly, after agreeing to take over Real Madrid after the finals; he had been replaced by sporting director Fernando Hierro who, for all his captaincy years at Madrid, had no coaching history.

But perhaps that matters little when a manager has masters of the game On which to lean such as Andres Iniesta, Diego Costa, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and Isco.

Not only did Spain withstand the managerial turmoil they were forced to go further by twice overcoming the morale-battering concession of goals at each end of the first half to the incomparable Ronaldo.

Real Madrid’s superstar had his own issues: it emerged only hours before the game that his lawyers were close to an agreement over tax evasion charges which would cost him a suspended jail sentence.

Yet the hat-trick with which he ended the match took him to 83 international goals, one short of the European record set by Madrid’s old Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas.

Ronaldo and Portugal had achieved the perfect start when he converted a fourth-minute penalty after having been tripped by Madrid club-mate Nacho.

After all the pre-match turbulence this was the point at which Spain’s World Cup destiny teetered in the balance. Either they would sink out of sight or they would fire upwards to meet the challenge.

They chose the latter option and levelled through Costa who bullied Pepe to the ground then wrong-footed two defenders. Minutes later the elusive Isco hit the bar and it appeared only a matter of time before Spain took the lead.

Instead it was Ronaldo who struck again, one minutes before half-time. His shot was low and hard but De Gea – his hair fashioned in a Loris Karius-style top-knot – let the ball slip through his hands.

The second half began in equally frenetic fashion as Spain seized the lead with a spell of two goals in three minutes from Costa again and Nacho. The fullback made up for his penalty giveaway with a swerving first-time drive which ricocheted home off Rui Patricio’s right-hand post.

Spain enjoyed their control. Iniesta and Costa were substituted, their job apparently done. But that was to underestimate Ronaldo. Again he was the initial victim of a foul, this time by Gerard Pique. Again he stood up to score, magnificently, from the free kick.

Oddly then, it was Iran who ended the day leading Group B in bizarre fashion. They were gifted their first victory in the finals for 20 years by a last-minute own goal which provided a 1-0 victory over Morocco. The Moroccans thus suffered a second defeat in three days after their bid to host the 2026 World Cup was roundly beaten by the United States, Canada and Mexico at Wednesday’s FIFA Congress.

The game offered few chances and too much tetchy behaviour and both teams would have been satisfied with a point apiece when the Iranians snatched all three with an own goal in the last minute from luckless Aziz Bouhaddouz.

The substitute dived to his right to defend a free kick but managed only to send a superbly misdirected diving header into his own goal. That provided Iran with only a second World Cup win, two decades after the politically-charged 2-1 success over the United States in France in 1998.

Earlier twice-champions Uruguay also had a late goal to thank as they won their Group A duel 1-0 over an Egypt side who left barely fit-again Mohamed Salah protectively on the substitutes’ bench.

Luis Suarez wasted three chances and Edinson Cavani hit a post before central defender Jose Gimenez headed home a right-wing free kick. Veteran coach Oscar Washington Tabarez took to his feet in delight, entirely forgetting the crutch which had supported his painfully slow arrival in the stadium.

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