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Ken Early: Ronaldo saves his superhero entrance until the cruel, closing scene

After nearly 90 minutes of frustration, he was still ceaselessly moving in search of an opening

When you go to a superhero movie, you know what to expect. Last night at the Estadio Algarve, it was going to be the turkey shoot when Cristiano Ronaldo broke the international scoring record, and Ireland were the turkey.

And then, for 89 minutes, in a match that was more like a classic Hollywood movie than anything that’s come out of Hollywood recently, it looked as though Ireland had torn up the script.

Gavin Bazunu announced his talent to the world by saving brilliantly from Ronaldo’s penalty kick on 15 minutes. The magnificence of the save inspired Ireland after a tentative, conservative start. If this 19-year-old can stand up like that, then so can the rest of us. It set the tone for a magnificent team effort that for so long looked destined to bring the biggest national team win in exactly 20 years.

In the 88th minute Bazunu would do it again, saving a Ronaldo free-kick that seemed like it could be Portugal's last throw of the dice. An air of doom had settled over the stadium ever since Bernardo Silva's miss on 74 minutes – jinking inside Matt Doherty and pulling the trigger from point-blank range, only for the ball to speed skywards like Jeff Bezos. Portugal did not believe they were going to score.


But one of the sickest twist endings ever was just around the corner. An ending that would be dismissed as ridiculous if scripted but played out in reality seemed somehow both impossible and inevitable. A late two-goal Ronaldo burst that left you wondering – how? How has he done that? How have we lost this?

The details are that Ronaldo scored two headed goals from right-wing crosses in the 90th and 95th minute. For the first, James McClean, a substitute for Aaron Connolly, was deceived by Gonçalo Guedes's shuffle and Ronaldo reached the cross ahead of Shane Duffy to head it in at the far post.

The record and a point saved for Portugal – but moments later the board went up signalling five minutes of injury time. The 10,000 crowd that had fretted through most of the second half was roaring the team on. Gaps were appearing in the tired Irish defence. The ball again found its way down the right. Ronaldo made a far-post run as Joao Mario crossed, but the ball was blocked and Ronaldo had arrived uselessly offside. The ball, though, went straight back to Joao Mario, who quickly slung it back into the middle. Ronaldo stole in from behind Séamus Coleman to meet the cross with a typical header.

Ronaldo had spent 89 minutes looking every one of his 36 years

The Portugal players raced to the corner to celebrate while the Irish players slumped to the ground in disbelief. Only minutes earlier, all had believed that 20 years to the day since the home win over Holland, they were at last going to be part of an Ireland team that beat a top-class European side in a match that really mattered.

Ronaldo had the shirt off and the referee, Matej Jug of Slovenia, had a beaming smile on his face as he showed the yellow card. He looked delighted to have played his own small part in the historic night.

Ronaldo had spent 89 minutes looking every one of his 36 years. Bazunu's save seemed to stun him. He dribbled woodenly at Josh Cullen and was tackled. He drifted through the half.

And in that first half his megastardom looked a heavy burden for his team-mates to carry. Because he doesn't do any defensive work off the ball, they are a man down when the other team has it. The problem was compounded by their team selection: Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva as a pair of 8s in midfield? Palhinha, the only remotely defensive-minded player of the front six, looked the loneliest man out there. Whenever they lost the ball it was suddenly as though Portugal's midfield did not exist. Ireland were pushing at an open door.

If Connolly could have been more clinical Ireland might have torn Portugal to shreds in the first half. He shot over twice when well placed, missed an opportunity to set Adam Idah clean through because he was still trying to get the ball under control, and got in behind for a great chance after Cullen chipped into the vast space behind Portugal's defence.

That last chance forced the corner from which Ireland took the lead. Jamie McGrath flighted it to the near post and John Egan soared above Ronaldo to the ball to send a spectacular header past Patricio.

How does he do it? Being better with his head than most players are with their feet is a big part of it, sure

In the second half Egan would run the length of the field to create another chance for Connolly that looked like it could have been a penalty. Ronaldo had contributed nothing. Silly shots from silly angles. Crosses to nobody. Coleman was saying things to him that didn’t look very nice. Bruno Fernandes was withdrawn. It was all going horribly wrong.

And then Ronaldo spent six minutes showing why he is the greatest goalscorer of all time. How does he do it? Being better with his head than most players are with their feet is a big part of it, sure. But even more than the physical and technical quality, it’s the mental strength: the concentration and the movement – the relentless little movements looking for the chance. This is what he’s saving his energy for while his team-mates chase to win the ball back. After nearly 90 minutes of frustration, he was still ceaselessly moving in search of the yard of space that would make the difference.

It was impossibly cruel on Stephen Kenny and the Ireland players. Like Mexico fans say "We played like never, and we lost like always." But keep playing like this, and one of these nights it's going to go our way.