With one minute of stoppage-time to go, Cristiano Ronaldo and his beleaguered-looking Portugal side appeared to be joining its Iberian neighbours Spain in exiting the World Cup after just two matches, while the Americans were set to top Group G and advance to the knock-out rounds.
Despite being far from full fitness, the Real Madrid star was still charged with leading Portugal in the crucial clash with the U.S., on Sunday, with a paucity of alternatives available to coach Paulo Bento.
And after an ineffective display in attack for A Seleccao, it seemed as though Bento’s gamble on his captain’s fitness had failed to bring an expectant nation the result it had been craving.
However, whereas he often drags his club or country out of the mire with a late wonder goal, this time Ronaldo turned provider, with one of the best deliveries of the tournament so far, leaving Silvestre Varela the task of simply connecting with the inch perfect cross en route to a dramatic 2-2 draw.
Varela’s late strike kept Portugal in, with a chance of qualification, and gave Ronaldo at least one more chance to prove to the world that he is the best player on the planet, capable of shouldering the burden of an entire country’s hopes, even when carrying an injury.
If it wasn’t for Ronaldo’s heroics, Scandinavia would have had a representative in Brazil, and Ronaldo would have had the similarly inflated-ego of Zlatan Ibrahimovic competing for the limelight this summer.
Ronaldo produces again
Yet, as he has done time and time again, Ronaldo produced the goods when it mattered, and fired an incredible hat trick in a 3-2 qualification victory over Sweden to secure his and his inferior teammates places on the plane.
While fellow forwards Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida have a decent international goal-scoring record, Postiga’s lack of first-team action while out on-loan at Lazio, and Almeida’s distinctly average strike rate while playing in Turkey, coach Bento is fully aware where his side’s goals come from.
Rumours were circulating through various media outlets this week that the former Manchester United favourite would actually be heading home, as his knee injury had not subsided, and would keep him out for the duration of the tournament.
And a Ronaldo-less Portugal simply don’t have the firepower to trouble even the most low-ranking of opponents.
But such is the sheer athleticism of the man. It would take more than a mere knee injury to stop the determination of Ronaldo from spearheading his country’s World Cup campaign.
Portugal head into its final group clash with the enigmatic Ghana in Brasilia, and a few more days recuperation and preparation will see Ronaldo get that little bit fitter, and hungrier.
And should A Seleccao progress, Belgium lie and wait, with a plethora of ability amongst its ranks.
However, possessing not only the best player in the world, but a man who produces the goods when it really matters, this late lifeline could be the catalyst for Portugal to get its tournament going.
Pete Hall is a UK-based journalist covering the World Cup in Brazil.