U.S. Markets open in 9 hrs 21 mins

Cristiano Ronaldo and the record-breaking hat-trick: Could he be the greatest footballer the planet has ever seen?

James Ducker
Cristiano Ronaldo's phenomenal hat-trick secured a 3-3 draw against Spain - AP

It just had to be a Real Madrid player who inflicted more pain on Spain, didn’t it? Two days after their coach, Julen Lopetegui, was sacked for negotiating to become Real’s next manager behind the Spanish Football Federation’s back, the man who has been that club’s driving force for almost a decade ensured the Madrid side continued to cast a large shadow over their World Cup.

Real’s appointment of Lopetegui had been very much of the cloak-and-danger variety, but there was nothing covert about the way Cristiano Ronaldo pulled Spain’s pants down here.

He wants his deeds to be seen by all and, to that end, the Fisht Stadium became the latest stop on Ronaldo’s mission to prove, once and for all, that he is the greatest footballer the planet has ever seen.

Spain must have thought they had won it but, two minutes from time, no Spanish observer will have registered any surprise at watching Ronaldo stroke home a free-kick to complete his hat-trick, draw Portugal level at 3-3 and guarantee a thrilling end to a breathless 90 minutes in Sochi.

We didn’t learn anything new about Ronaldo’s brilliance here but it did reaffirm the view that if Portugal are to add the World Cup to the European Championship they plundered in France two years ago, the reliance on Ronaldo is all consuming.

It really did seem that a creaking defence might spoil his party but, rather than sulk when Spain came from 2-1 down to lead 3-2, Ronaldo simply stepped things up a notch.

This was a classic in every sense but Portugal better learn how to defend, and quick. It might be stretching even Ronaldo’s powers to expect him to keep bailing them out. As long as he stays fit and in this sort of form, though, Portugal will retain a glimmer of hope.

Goal No 1: Ronaldo made no mistake from the penalty spot Credit: getty images

He needed just 135 seconds to put his stamp on a match that more than lived up to its pre-match hype. A global audience was first introduced to his favourite trick in his repertoire - the step-over - as a spotty-faced teenager for Manchester United against Bolton Wanderers in 2003 and, 15 years on, defenders are still having a terrible time trying to prevent it making fools o them.

Nacho would make handsome amends for bringing down Ronaldo but, like his Spain team-mates, the right back’s concentration appeared to have been affected by off-field events early on. The Portugal forward invited the Spain right-back to bring him down and Ronaldo was appealing for a penalty even before he hit the deck.

David De Gea had a shocker to allow Ronaldo's second goal to squirm through Credit: getty images

According to reports before the game, Ronaldo has settled a tax evasion case with the Spanish authorities by agreeing to pay a £16.4million fine and, when it comes to matters in front of goal, no one is seldom more on the money.

His spot-kick was placed with all the conviction and power he had demonstrated with that pressure penalty against Juventus in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. If there is a player who embraces pressure quite so eagerly, please point him out.

Pressure has suffocated some of the best but Ronaldo thrives on it in a manner that might seem unhealthy if it was not so central to his very existence. The goal meant he became the first player in history to score in eight consecutive major tournaments and we all know how he likes a record.

Yet nothing will have pleased him more than the sight of his free-kick hitting the back of the net late on after Spain had threatened to spare David De Gea’s humiliation. You don’t score in football if you don’t shoot and if young players can take anything from Ronaldo, it is insistence on always trying to get the ball on target. Do that and you never know what will happen.

Ronaldo's third goal was a pinpoint perfect free-kick Credit: getty images

Even then, few could have believed De Gea would allow a speculative shot to bounce off his hand and in but then this was the third error in four matches for Spain the United goalkeeper has made.

It was a rollercoaster of a game and Fernando Santos, the Portugal coach, may yet want to reconfigure his central defence as the tournament progresses. Pepe and Jose Fonte have a combined age of 69 and time certainly appeared to be catching up with them here. Sure, Portugal could feel aggrieved that the Italian referee, Gianluca Rocchi failed to spot a clear forearm by Costa on Pepe but, with play waved on, Fonte hardly covered himself in glory.

With Costa twisting and turning, the former Southampton and West Ham United defender made the cardinal sin of backing off and paid a heavy price when the Atletico Madrid striker lamped the ball into the bottom corner. There was worse to follow. But then it really does help when you have Ronaldo riding to the rescue.

World Cup 2018 | The best of the Telegraph's coverage
World Cup whatsapp promo