Cristiano Ronaldo would not be denied. He had a penalty saved by Gavin Bazunu and then saw John Egan give the Republic of Ireland a deserved lead. But Manchester United’s newest signing struck twice in the dying minutes to give Portugal victory and crown himself the most prolific scorer in the history of men’s international football.
As with almost every match that Ronaldo plays these days, the 36-year-old was aiming not just for a win but for another record – here he was hoping that on his 180th appearance for his country he would become the most prolific scorer in the history of men’s international football. He went into this game with 109 goals so far, level on the roll of honour with Iran’s Ali Daei and 101 clear of the combined total mustered by Ireland’s starting XI before this game.
He was given the perfect chance to get the goal he craved when Portugal were awarded a penalty in the 10th minute when Jeff Hendrick was judged to have tripped Bruno Fernandes after Bazuno left a pass too short. After a five-minute VAR review, Ronaldo stepped up to make history but Bazunu, a 19-year-old Dubliner who plays for Portsmouth on loan from Manchester City, dived to his right to push away Ronaldo’s powerful spot-kick. It was a remarkable way for the goalkeeper to atone for his mistake and to vindicate Kenny, whose belief in the teenager’s ability and temperament has persuaded him to make Bazunu the country’s No 1.
Kenny needed a break. With a friendly victory over Andorra the only win in his 13 matches in charge prior to this, criticism of the manager was brewing even if there was widespread recognition that his team have been beset by rotten luck.
Kenny had vowed to play as proactively as possible on the Algarve and his team backed him up. Although the hosts enjoyed the majority of possession, Ireland defended smartly – and not too deeply – and showed tidy enterprise when they could.
Diogo Jota should have put Portugal in front before the half-hour but headed against a post from close range. But that chance aside, a confident Ireland looked the more savvy team as half-time approached. There was palpable evidence of progress from their last qualifier, March’s embarrassing home defeat by Luxembourg.
Ederson had to charge out of his goal to save from the pesky Aaron Connolly just before the break. From the resulting corner, Egan leapt in front of Ronaldo at the near post to meet a delivery by Jamie McGrath – making his first senior start for his country – and send a glancing header into the net.
That triggered a retort from Portugal but Jota fired wide when given a shooting chance at the edge of the area in first-half stoppage time.
The hosts began the second period as if determined to right a wrong but Ireland continued to justify their lead. Unable to pick a way through a visiting defence in which the 19-year-old Andrew Omobamidele impressed after replacing the injured Dara O’Shea, Fernandes tried to place a curling shot into the top corner from over 20 yards but it flew wide. Fernandes was soon replaced. Connolly, constantly dangerous on the break, nearly increased Ireland’s lead before the hour but skewed a shot wide after a cross from the left was headed down to him by Egan.
Bazunu turned away a freekick by Ronaldo in the 87th minute but just as Ireland started to sense victory, Ronaldo soared to conquer, planting a header into the net from 10 yards. And then, in the sixth minute of stoppage time, he did it again.