PORTO (Reuters) - There were moments during Wednesday’s Nations League semi-final between Portugal and Switzerland when Cristiano Ronaldo was beginning to look like a 34-year-old reaching the twilight of his career.
The pace that once terrified defenders, the quick changes of direction, the energy and the constant movement are no longer part of his game.
Yet that is to miss the point about the late-career Ronaldo — the man can still put the ball in the net like very few others and has refined his game so that is now almost all he focuses upon.
The Juventus forward won Wednesday’s game with a hat-trick consisting of three superbly-taken goals, as the hosts reached Sunday’s final with a 3-1 win over Switzerland.
It was his seventh hat-trick for Portugal and a remarkable 53rd for club and country.
England or the Netherlands await for the reigning European Champions in the first final of this new competition and Ronaldo will be relishing the chance to put their young guns in their place.
It was tempting, before the game, to wonder whether this would be the night when Ronaldo handed over the starring role in his national side to the 19-year-old Joao Felix, whose 20 goals this season for Benfica have earned him the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs.
After all, Ronaldo had not scored in any of his last four appearances for Portugal, his last goal coming against Morocco at the 2018 World Cup.
If not Felix then perhaps Bernardo Silva, so impressive for English champions Manchester City this season, would be revealed as the real force in Fernando Santos’s team with his creativity, invention and touches of genius.
But no, this is still Ronaldo’s team — he is the man who makes the difference, who delivers when it is most needed.
Interestingly two of Ronaldo’s goals came after Felix was substituted in the 70th minute.
The Portuguese fans are certainly content to still have the former Real Madrid striker as their main protagonist, with the home supporters chanting his name at the end of the game.
Some UEFA organisers may also have been happy that the story of this first Nations League semi-final game was about the continuing quality of a man who has provided so much entertainment.
Until Ronaldo’s match-winning strikes in the 88th and 90th minutes, the story of this game was going to be about the VAR video review system.
In particular it would have been about the farcical way in which German referee Felix Brych awarded a penalty for Portugal but then ended up reviewing a previous incident at the other end and giving Switzerland a spot kick that was highly questionable no matter how many times it was replayed.
That bizarre incident swung the game from what would have been a likely 2-0 lead for Portugal to 1-1, giving the Swiss a lifeline.
Ronaldo had opened the scoring with a superbly struck, dipping free kick which was helped in by an insecure Swiss wall and the inability of keeper Yann Sommer to see the shot.
Yet for large stretches of the match, Ronaldo looked far from a threat and it was Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri who stood out on the field with his constant probing, forcing the Portuguese defence back onto their heels.
Ronaldo used to do that, in his days of greater mobility and stamina, but he has long since re-invented himself into a central striker who makes the most of what time has not robbed him of — his deadly marksmanship.
And when he struck it was in ruthless fashion.
His first-time finish for the second was so stunning that it would be easy to forget the brilliant cross-field pass from Ruben Neves to Bernardo Silva which created the opening.
The third was trademark Ronaldo — on the break, found on the left, he ran at the Swiss defence, wrong-footed them with a clever step-over and cut inside before drilling the ball into the corner.
It felt like it could happen from the moment Ronaldo collected the pass — predictable but unstoppable yet again.
“We’re used to this kind of thing, he’s been doing it for ages and it isn’t a surprise to anyone now,” said Bernardo Silva.
“He scored three... nothing new for him. He’s often the difference maker.”
The only question is just how many more years he can carry on doing this?
His successful reinvention has already prolonged his career and the bad news for defenders is that playing like this, he might still be scoring for many years to come.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis