Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo gestures to the fans at the end of the group B match between Portugal and Spain at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, Friday, June 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Ronaldo with chance to prove he can also thrive at World Cup

June 16, 2018 - 10:20 am

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — After conquering Europe with his club and his country, Cristiano Ronaldo is out to show he can also dominate on the world stage.

The Portugal forward hasn't been at his best in past World Cups, but his opening hat trick in Russia is a sign that things are starting to change.

Ronaldo carried his national team on Friday, scoring all three goals in a 3-3 draw against Spain in Sochi.

"I'm happy, it's my best performance in a World Cup," Ronaldo said after the Group B match.

After only one game in Russia, Ronaldo has already doubled his total goals from previous World Cups. And with matches against Morocco and Iran coming up, he is already in good position to contend for this year's "Golden Boot" trophy.

In the last 10 World Cups, only once has the top scorer had more than six goals in a single tournament — Brazil forward Ronaldo in 2002 with eight. Colombia midfielder James Rodriguez ended up with six goals in Brazil four years ago.

Ronaldo's third goal at Fisht Stadium was a remarkable 88th-minute free kick that salvaged the draw. The perfectly taken shot — with the ball going over the wall and into the top corner — was the talk of the World Cup on Friday.

"When you play against a player like Cristiano Ronaldo, that kind of thing can happen," Spain coach Fernando Hierro said. "With Cristiano, one moment of inspiration can be enough."

The goal allowed Ronaldo to join Ferenc Puskas as Europe's top international scorer with 84 goals, matching a record that was set more than six decades ago. Ronaldo's first goal had already allowed him to become the fourth player to score in four World Cups, joining Pele, Miroslav Klose and Uwe Seeler. He celebrated that goal by apparently implying he is the greatest player of all time.

"This is the work of many years," said the 33-year-old Ronaldo, who became the oldest to score a hat trick at the World Cup.

The World Cup hasn't been where Ronaldo has impressed the most, though. While he was crucial for Portugal when it won the European Championship for the first time two years ago, and has been nearly unstoppable with Real Madrid in the Champions League in recent seasons, Ronaldo had only one goal in each of the last three World Cups.

He had yet to produce a blockbuster World Cup performance like the many he had over the years with Real Madrid in the Champions League, a tournament in which he is the all-time leading scorer with 120 goals — 20 more than Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo had nine goals in the four European Championships in which he played, including three in the title-winning campaign in France. One of his goals opened the way for the team's 2-0 win over Wales in the semifinals.

"Cristiano has great physical strength but his mental strength is very impressive as well," Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. "He has played at the highest level for a long time now."

Ronaldo's performance against Spain came despite him arriving in Russia surrounded by distractions about his club future and a tax-fraud accusation back in Madrid.

On the eve of the match, Spanish media reported that Ronaldo agreed to plead guilty and pay a fine of 18.8 million euros ($21.8 million). Earlier, he had already been criticized for not saying whether he would continue at Real Madrid after the World Cup.

"People who criticize him must have some kind of a problem," Spain striker Diego Costa said. "Every season he is scoring 40 or 50 goals. Cristiano is Cristiano, there's nothing else to say about him."

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