Cristiano Ronaldo failed to repeat his magic against the Republic of Ireland as 10-man Portugal were held to a goalless draw in their World Cup qualifier in Dublin.
The 36-year-old scored two last-gasp headers in the reverse fixture in September to snatch victory at the death and powered a 67th-minute effort wide with a crowd of 50,737 at the Aviva Stadium expecting the net to bulge.
He then fired across the face of goal and saw goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu deny him deep into stoppage time.
As a result, the visitors had to make do with a draw which took them to the top of Group A on goal difference ahead Sunday’s home clash with Serbia – which veteran defender Pepe will miss after being sent off for two bookable offences – when the same result or better would secure qualification for Qatar.
Ireland, whose own hopes of making it to the finals were effectively over two months ago, were good value for a point which means they can finish third with a win in Luxembourg at the weekend, and while that represents scant consolation, the unfortunate reverse in Faro is now their only defeat in nine games.
The Football Association of Ireland will assess the campaign after its conclusion to determine whether or not to extend Stephen Kenny’s stay as manager, and a creditable display against one of European football’s current powerhouses will have done him little harm.
With one eye on Sunday, Portugal boss Fernando Santos took the decision to leave five of his six men on yellow cards – Joao Cancelo, Diogo Jota, Renato Sanches, Ruben Dias and Jose Fonte – on the bench.
Ireland set about their task in determined mood, Shane Duffy marking his 50th cap with a rugged early challenge on Ronaldo, and they had an early half-chance, although Callum Robinson could not react quickly enough after Duffy had headed Jamie McGrath’s delivery towards him.
However, skipper Seamus Coleman had to recover well to make a vital interception after Ronaldo had skipped past him two minutes later, and Bazunu made a solid save from Andre Silva after Bruno Fernandes’ quickly taken 13th-minute free-kick caught the Ireland rearguard flat-footed.
As Joao Palhinha, Matheus Nunes and Fernandes pulled the strings in the middle of the park, Portugal were building up a head of steam and Coleman had to throw himself into the path of Ronaldo’s goal-bound shot after Goncalo Guedes had cut in and crossed from the right.
To their credit, Kenny’s men were brave in possession as they played themselves out of a series of tight corners, and Rui Patricio had to palm away Robinson’s dangerously swerving 27th-minute cross at the other end.
Chiedozie Ogbene guided a header high and wide after good work by Robinson on the left as the whistle approached, but the game remained goalless at the break.
Ronaldo was growing increasingly frustrated and showed it after being muscled off the ball by Coleman as the second half got under way, and with Portugal’s central defensive pairing of Pepe and Danilo looking less than convincing against Ogbene’s pace, Ireland sensed an opportunity.
Josh Cullen might have done better when presented with a shooting opportunity by Matheus’ slip, but so too might Ronaldo when he drilled a free-kick straight at Duffy seconds later.
However, the Republic enjoyed a major escape when Ronaldo planted a 67th-minute header inches wide of the target after the otherwise impressive Jeff Hendrick was caught under the ball, with Bazunu looking on helplessly as the ball flew past his right post.
Pepe, who had earlier been cautioned for handball, was dismissed after an ill-judged 82nd-minute challenge on Robinson to spark a late Irish assault in which Will Keane was handed a late debut as a substitute, but Ronaldo might have won it six minutes into stoppage time if not for Bazunu’s near-post block.
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