EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Hugo Almeida scored the goals. Cristiano Ronaldo was the star.
Almeida’s two first-half goals paced Portugal to a 5-1 victory over Ireland on Tuesday, the team’s final friendly before heading to Brazil for the World Cup. But it was Ronaldo the overwhelmingly partisan Portuguese crowd of 46,063 at MetLife Stadium came to see.
With many in the crowd wearing Portuguese jerseys, most of them emblazoned with Ronaldo’s customary No. 7, they cheered his every touch, the first of which came less than a minute after the opening kickoff. He sprinted from midfield before hitting a low shot that Irish keeper David Forde easily handled.
After much publicized injuries to his left knee and thigh that kept him sidelined since May 24 when he helped Real Madrid over Atletico in the Champions League final, Portuguese fans — and coach Paulo Bento — were happy to see him back.
“It’s important,” Bento said through a translator. “Players like Ronaldo are definitely important for any team they play for, and such is the case ourselves. So it’s good for us to have him back.”
Each time Ronaldo neared the ball, the noise level crescendoed. One of his biggest ovations came when he left the game in the 65th minute for Nani, one of four simultaneous substitutions for Portugal.
Portugal scored a mere 121 seconds into the game when Silvestre Varela dribbled down the right and crossed to an unmarked Almeida, who easily headed it in from the edge of the 6-yard box.
The Portuguese doubled their lead in the 20th when Ronaldo sent a ball wide left to Fabio Coentrao. His attempted cross struck the outstretched foot of Irish defender Richard Keough and looped over a hapless Forde before settling in the far side netting for an own-goal.
Portugal dominated possession and chances, including a pair of shots in rapid succession in the 14th minute. Forde did well to parry a blast from Ronaldo first, then recovered to deny Raul Mierelles on the rebound.
Ronaldo nearly had his goal five minutes later, skipping a free kick from 25 yards once off the turf and bouncing it off the right post.
“Naturally there was fear of him perhaps of not being ready to play in the World Cup because of his injury,” Ireland coach Martin O’Neill said about Ronaldo. “He looks as though he was over that.
“He is absolutely vital to Portugal’s hopes of doing well. While they have got a number of really brilliant players, he is one of the two top players playing world football. So it was essential for Portugal that one, he got through the game tonight, and secondly that he would give them a great lift going into the World Cup.”
Ronaldo troubled Ireland throughout the first half and had a hand in the third goal in the 37th. Forde blocked Ronaldo’s sharp header, but Almeida reacted to the rebound and volleyed it in.
“I think he had a good match,” Bento said of Ronaldo. “Considering especially that he was without competing for a few weeks, I thought he did well.”
Ireland was far more effective from the outset of the second half and scored in the 52nd when James McClean beat keeper Rui Patricio with a low left-footed shot to the far side.
Second-half substitute Nani set up two goals six minutes apart that completed the rout by the 83rd minute. Nani his a cross that Vieirinha headed and Forde blocked. But the rebound came straight back to Vieirinha, who volleyed it in Then Vieirinha sent a a ball to Coentrao, whose right-footed flick beat Forde past his left shoulder.
The victory finished Portugal with two wins and a draw in its three preparation matches, drawing 0-0 with Greece and beating Mexico 1-0.
The Portuguese open the World Cup on June 16 against Germany and also will face the United States and Ghana in Group G.
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