Cristiano Ronaldo: Best in the world, and on his way to Brazil.
Football really is a funny old game. The fact of the matter is that the playoff featuring Ronaldo and Portugal vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden had not lived up to expectations after three halves of play. Sure, Ronaldo buried the only goal when these sides met on Friday, but neither superstar excelled in that match. Both men then squandered scoring opportunities in the first half of Tuesday's affair.
And then came the final 45 minutes of the World Cup Playoff.
João Moutinho released Ronaldo free and clear into the attacking third with a perfect through ball five minutes after the halftime break. Ronaldo ran the pass down and, with all kinds of time and space with which to work, he sailed home a left-footed curler. It was the away goal Portugal yearned for, one that seemingly closed the door on Sweden's World Cup dreams.
Nobody told Ibra that it was over, though. The PSG man brought Sweden level on the day in the 68th minute when he headed in the equalizer. Ibrahimovic then sent the home crowd into delirium four minutes later when he struck a rocket free kick that Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio had zero chance of saving. The visitors were on the ropes, and Sweden were but a single tally from erasing Portugal's away goal advantage.
Ronaldo, undoubtedly the No. 1 healthy footballer on earth, was having none of it. Only a handful of minutes after he curiously went down with what appeared to be an ankle problem, a perfectly-timed counterattack presented Ronaldo with another free chance, this time down the left wing. A perfect set-up touch off his knee was followed with a far-post strike that found the back of the net in the 77th minute, a brilliant goal worthy of a future Ballon d'Or winner.
Ronaldo would require only two more minutes to finish Sweden off for good. He tracked down a through ball via a diagonal run that ended inside the penalty area. Ronaldo dragged the ball across the face of goal and out of the reach of goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson before firing a strike that hit just underneath the crossbar and across the line. Hat-trick completed. Task completed.
Anybody who doubts what the World Cup means to any players need only watch and re-watch Ronaldo's reaction to his third goal. An extremely wealthy man recognized around the planet, one who has also won his fair share of titles and individual awards, sprinted toward the Portugal sideline while sporting a mile-wide smile. He jumped into the arms of awaiting teammates in celebration, almost as if Portugal had won something bigger than merely the chance to play in Brazil.
At the opposite end sat the agony of defeat. Just as great as it is for the game that Ronaldo will participate in world football's biggest party is the disappointment that comes from knowing that Ibrahimovic will not play in the World Cup. Ibra did all that he could, but there was absolutely no stopping Ronaldo on this night.
Overreaction is a natural part of watching and covering sports. The very idea of some TV analysts as well as individuals posting on social media websites suggesting that Ronaldo could carry Portugal to a World Cup Final next summer is laughable. Nevertheless, it would be a task to overstate just how dominant Ronaldo was on Tuesday.
Tonight's events won't do much to squash those Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi (when Messi isn't injured, of course) conversations. As long as fitness isn't an issue, I'd take Ronaldo every day of the week in November 2013. Nobody in the world is, right here and now, better.