Portugal remain top of FIFA World Cup qualifying Group F after coming from behind to beat Northern Ireland 4-2 in Belfast on Friday, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the first hat-trick of his international career.
The Real Madrid CF forward had been somewhat upstaged the last time he met Northern Ireland, a late equaliser denying the visitors a 1-0 victory in Porto last October, in the game that marked Ronaldo's 100th Portugal cap. However, he was the undisputed star at Windsor Park as his 15-minute treble kept his side two points clear of Russia in the group – and moved him to 43 national-team goals, two above Eusébio in Portugal's all-time rankings.
"It was my first hat-trick for Portugal and that is something historic for me – it was very special," the 28-year-old said. "I've surpassed Eusébio's total but that was not my main objective. I'm proud to have caught and then overtaken Eusébio, who was one of Portugal's greatest." To add to the sense that the fates were intervening, SL Benfica icon Eusébio had scored his last international goal against Northern Ireland. Ronaldo is now just four shy of Pauleta's 47-strike national record.
"We had many difficulties in this match but our coach Paulo Bento said to us during the interval that we should continue to believe," continued Ronaldo, whose hat-trick rescued the Portuguese from a 2-1 losing position with 22 minutes to play. "We showed we are a great team."
Meanwhile, Bento was grateful he could call on such a terrific marksman when things got tough against Michael O'Neill's men, who had defeated Russia at the same venue last month. "[Ronaldo's goals] are a measure of his performance and class," the 44-year-old explained. "I have to highlight my team's pedigree and personality. This result is down to them. Northern Ireland scored the first time they reached our goal and we were in trouble at 2-1. Then we showed our true nature and turned the tables."
Portugal were also aided by Chris Brunt's 61st-minute sending-off, which evened up the numbers following Hélder Postiga's straight red card on the cusp of half-time. Their Group F campaign concludes in October with back-to-back home fixtures against Israel and Luxembourg.
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