Ronaldo in sticky situation for club and country: Richard Buxton
Portugal's World Cup qualification struggle mirrors issues at Man United
Just as it has happened quite often in his club career lately, Cristiano Ronaldo finds himself embroiled in another tight situation. This time, it's for his country.
The 36-year-old is walking a tightrope as far as World Cup qualification is concerned, with Portugal losing grasp of a winnable Group A following their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Not only did the Manchester United superstar fail to find the target with his meagre three attempts at goal, but he also went through the motions for large parts of the game.
Ronaldo also reaffirmed his status as a sore loser by greeting the final whistle with a repertoire of sheer petulance that extended to remonstrating with Fernando Santos.
The Selecao coach later claimed that his talisman's disallowed last-minute winner in March's corresponding fixture lay at the heart of those visible post-match frustrations.
Some good did emerge from Ronaldo's previous tantrum; the captain's armband that he slammed to the turf in Belgrade raised 64,000 euros (S$99,000) for charity at an auction.
Events in Lisbon should still leave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer shuffling uncomfortably.
United's beleaguered manager remains heavily indebted to the five-time Ballon d'Or winner conjuring decisive late goals which snatched respectability from the jaws of defeat.
Without Ronaldo's headline-grabbing exploits, the Norwegian's faltering Old Trafford tenure might have reached its natural conclusion instead of teetering on the brink.
Portugal's plight, however, suggests even they are no longer cast-iron certainties.
The 2016 European champions should have coasted to Qatar 2022 on the back of a Group A qualification campaign which appeared a relative formality at the outset.
Ronaldo's haul of six goals in seven games failed to prevent his country from dropping five points against Serbia or drawing a blank in last week's 0-0 stalemate with Ireland, who are 43 positions beneath them in Fifa's world rankings.
A solitary point at the Estadio da Luz would have been enough to confirm Portugal's place in Qatar as well as their elder statesman's fifth successive World Cup tournament.
Instead, they are set to do it the hard way again, as proved the case for Euro 2020.
Once more, the onus will be on Ronaldo to deliver another show-stopping display and steer his largely underperforming compatriots through next March's play-off route.
Santos' guarantee that Portugal will reach Qatar is still dependent on a player, who turns 37 just weeks ahead of the final qualification hurdle, producing the goods.
International football's all-time leading goalscorer has no shortage of motivation, yet may have expended more energy than anticipated on United's fluctuating fortunes.
Solskjaer's side, who are nine points adrift of English Premier League leaders Chelsea, are clinging to the prospect of the Champions League knockout stage.
Europe's elite club tournament imbues Ronaldo's competitive nature as he eyes a sixth title, which is looking like a long shot with the Red Devils.
If his insolence in Lisbon was any indication, one wonders how he would react if even his late heroics can't save United.
Santos escaped lightly with an earful after jeopardising an anticipated World Cup swansong. Solskjaer might not be as fortunate if United forced him to shelve his European dream.
Portugal will qualify for World Cup in Qatar, says coach Santos
Portugal coach Fernando Santos insisted that they will qualify for next year's World Cup, despite being consigned to the play-offs after a 2-1 defeat by Serbia yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Thanks to a 90th-minute header by half-time substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic, the Serbs clinched Group A's top spot, which also comes with an automatic berth for Qatar 2022.
Renato Sanches put Portugal in front at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon after just two minutes, but Serbia captain Dusan Tadic sparked their comeback with a 33rd-minute equaliser.
NEEDED ONLY A DRAW
Portugal, who were held 0-0 by Ireland last week, had needed only a draw to finish top on goal difference and qualify, but will now go to the March play-offs.
Said Santos: "We have to apologise. The Portuguese people are disappointed, but they are not more disappointed than us.
"But my team will be at the World Cup in Qatar, that is a guarantee, only we'll have to do it through a play-off."
Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo was stifled up front and he appeared to vent his frustration at Santos after the game.
Meanwhile, jubilant Serbian fans thronged central Belgrade, bringing traffic at the main Republic Square to a halt as they waved Serbian flags and hooted their car horns.
Mitrovic said Serbia's confidence ahead of the game was vindicated by a bold performance.
"We came here to play football and having been the better side, we earned it all," the Fulham striker told Serbia's Nova television. - REUTERS