Ronaldo finally has a World Cup performance to sit alongside his greatest nights

Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal Spain World Cup
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The Portuguese is playing the tournament for the fourth time and on Friday he produced a display to match his finest moments in an astonishing career

Cristiano Ronaldo has had to wait a long time for a night like this. The Real Madrid forward is a man for the big occasion, yet for all his memorable performances in the Champions League, La Liga, the Premier League and even the European Championship, he was missing a special soirée at a World Cup.

Despite all his brilliance for club and country over the years, it had looked at one stage that such a moment might elude him. At Brazil 2014, Ronaldo's role was limited. Clearly unfit and with an ice pack on his knee between games, he was restricted to a single goal and an assist against Ghana.

At the age of 29 and the with the years of sprinting down the wing taking their toll on his body, some speculated that it could even be his last World Cup. Cristiano, however, had other ideas and on Friday, his persistence paid off in spectacular style.

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First, he won a penalty as he went down under a challenge from club colleague Nacho. Contact was minimal, but it was there and Ronaldo stepped up to convert. Later, he made it 2-1 as David De Gea failed to hold his shot. But he saved the best until last.

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With only a couple of minutes remaining, Ronaldo drew a foul from old foe Gerard Pique outside the area and promptly curled home a fantastic free-kick to earn Portugal a 3-3 draw. It was the first time he had scored a free-kick in a major tournament for Portugal, at the 45th attempt, and it was a goal to grace what will go down as one of the World Cup's greatest games.

It was also his 51st career hat-trick, which in itself is incredible. Ronaldo will no doubt be able to remember them all and he has the footballs from those matches in pride of place at the CR7 Museum in his native Madeira. This one, however, will be extra special.

"I am very happy," he told reporters after the game. "It's a personal best which is beautiful – it's one more record in my career. It's more important to highlight what the team has done, playing against a favourite for the World Cup."

And he added: "In my opinion it was a fair result. We are very happy, and a very hard-fought game. Now we think about the next match. We have to think match by match. We all know the favourites, but we are candidates."

Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal Spain 2018

With Morocco and Iran much weaker rivals, Portugal should advance to the last 16 without too many problems and Ronaldo will be eager to increase his goal tally against those two teams, having reached an astonishing 84 international strikes on Friday.

Sometimes accused of stat-padding against smaller sides, Ronaldo had never previously scored in four games against Spain, although he was extremely unfortunate – and also angry – as he saw one effort ruled out in 2010 as an offside Nani nodded in with the ball already crossing the line.

Even the late and great Eusebio, whose Portugal goal record he overtook a few years ago, said in 2013: "It's sad that I am compared with Ronaldo. Now it is easier to play against some teams. I never played against Liechtenstein or Azerbaijan."

Eusebio scored nine times in his only World Cup, in 1966, including four in one game – a 5-3 win over North Korea. And that was more than Ronaldo had previously managed across three tournaments.

In 2006, Cristiano helped Portugal to the semi-finals and hit the winning penalty in the shootout against England in the last eight. However, his only goal was a spot-kick versus Iran in the group stages.

Four years later, he managed only one more as the team coached by Carlos Queiroz lost out to Spain in the last 16, his sole strike coming in a 7-0 win over North Korea – and that after a series of missed opportunities.

And in 2014, he had to wait until the final group game to net as Paulo Bento's side beat Ghana, only to crash out in third place in their sector. Overall, he had netted three goals in three World Cups prior to this one – all against relatively weak teams.

Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal Spain World Cup 2018

But all of that changed in Sochi on Friday. Ronaldo is a different player for Portugal, dropping deeper and featuring much more in the build-up than he often does at Real Madrid, where he has become very much a centre-forward in recent seasons.

Against Spain, he was a constant threat and although some suggested he was fortunate with his penalty and De Gea's error, he had earnt it. Ronaldo was outstanding and once again it was his ambition that propelled Portugal to a remarkable result.

It is that ambition that helped Fernando Santos' side claim the Euro 2016 title two years ago and the same tireless pursuit of excellence saw Cristiano etch his name on a World Cup classic on Friday.

Whatever he and Portugal do in the remainder of this tournament, Friday's fantastic hat-trick now means he has a night to sit alongside his most memorable moments in football. And for that, he deserves the highest praise.