Ronaldo escapes red as Portugal squeeze into last 16
Iran 1 Portugal 1
So, Portugal are not a one-man team after all. On a sultry, sticky night in the Mordovia Arena, they progressed to the knockout stage without any meaningful contribution from the man who defines them.
His goatee may grow ever more prominent with every game, as he seeks visual confirmation of his status as the greatest of all time, but for Cristiano Ronaldo this was not his most accomplished moment in a red shirt. He even had a penalty saved.
And he was lucky to stay on the pitch after the video assistant referee noticed that he had thrust an elbow into an opponent's face.
"In the rules, an elbow is a red card, it doesn't matter if it's Lionel Messi or Ronaldo," raged Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, who complained that VAR decisions were not transparent.
But if it was not Ronaldo's night, despite the bravest of late, late comebacks, despite hurling the kitchen sink at their opponents, it was not Iran's either. And it is to the detriment of the tournament that Queiroz's side have played their last in it.
It is certainly to the detriment of the competition's atmosphere that their thousands of fans, with their incessant broiling enthusiasm and their relentless parping of their horns, are going home. How they contributed.
And at the last, how they suffered.
Iran's problem here, though, was they needed to win. The draw they somehow engineered, remarkable as it was, deserved as it was, littered as it was with controversy and video assistance as it might have been, was never sufficient.
But this is a side set up to defend, a side who had sparked Spain's ire earlier in the tournament with their 10-man defensive line. And they began this game once again more concerned with the opposition than with themselves.
Mind, when the opposition contains Ronaldo it pays to be attentive. And no one was more motivated to stop him than Queiroz.
Once he was his protege but has latterly become his nemesis. Putting Saeid Ezatolahi in front of the back four, to stop Ronaldo's forward surges, Queiroz had a constant barrier against Portuguese assault.
The trouble was, moving forward in pursuit of the goal they needed required a level of tactical revisionism beyond this side. When they attacked they looked nervous, lacking in belief and purpose. And too often the ball.
Their task was made all the more pressing just before half-time. Until then Portugal had huffed and puffed without any hint that they might create an opening or two. Then Ricardo Quaresma, who was in the side replacing Manchester City's Bernardo Silva, demonstrated why he had been picked.
Receiving the ball near the touchline he pushed it into the path of Adrien Silva who deftly returned it with a back-heel. The winger then advanced into the area before arcing a beautiful shot beyond the Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand with the outside of his right boot. The first person to congratulate him was his captain Ronaldo, perhaps informing him he could do that.
From there, Iran had only one course. And it was clearly not one with which they were comfortable.
The AZ Alkmaar forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh did his best, trying to find space, trying to work his way into the Portuguese box. He even fashioned a free-kick of a sort Ronaldo himself might admire, when picking himself up after being fouled and, after playing a cunning dummy, he curled the ball on to Ezatolahi's head. But Rui Patricio was wise to it, showing Wolves fans what they might expect next season with a sharp save Ronaldo was not to be ignored, however. With Iran trying to attack, he broke into space, dipped his shoulder and ran into the area, tumbling as he passed Ezatolahi.
He was convinced it was a foul, but Enrique Caceres, the Paraguayan referee was having none of it. Until, that is, someone had a word in his ear.
After consulting his touchline video equipment, which clearly indicated Ronaldo had been tripped, he gave the penalty, booking Ezatolahi in the process. But Beiranvand prevented the self-proclaimed goat from catching Harry Kane at the top of the scoring charts with a smart save.
For a moment the Iranian fans thought this might be a sign. Convinced the world is against them here appeared to be vindication. But despite their roaring, despite the endless tooting on their horns, their team could not find a way forward. Their sense of frustration was hardly reduced when, after consulting the VAR again, the referee ruled that Ronaldo had elbowed Morteza Pouraliganji in the face. But, extraordinarily, much to Queiroz's boiling fury, only a yellow card was flourished.
Iran finally had the moment they deserved when, consulting his video box for a third time, the increasingly embattled referee awarded them a penalty for handball by Cedric. Cue pandemonium in the stadium, a noise that was hardly quelled when the substitute Karim Ansarifard put his kick in the top corner. Now with the whistle looming, Iran could only pile forward. Mehdi hit the side netting, sending half the stadium (and Queiroz) into raptures.
It was not to be. Portugal will now face Uruguay in the last 16. And Iran, their players all in tears at the end, are going home, recognising the terminal truth that football can be a harsh game. (© Daily Telegraph, London)