Cristiano Ronaldo struggles and VAR takes centre stage but Portugal do enough to advance
SARANSK, Russia -- Three quick thoughts from Portugal's 1-1 draw with Iran at Mordovia Arena, which sees Fernando Santos' European champions finish second in Group B behind Spain.
1. Santos' attacking changes get the job done
There's a shop in Munich city centre that sells an cast-iron, wood-fired orange outdoor hot tub. Imagine sitting in that on the hottest day of the year, slowly dissolving, next to ten screaming, bouncing guys blowing vuvuzelas in your face. That's what it was like in the Mordovia Arena on Monday night.
In 35 years of going to football games, this correspondent has never experienced as much head-splitting, ear-rising noise as the supporters of Team Melli made whenever one of their players came within 40 metres of Rui Patricio's goal.
Portugal, however, were out to silence the opposition and turn down the temperature from the start. Santos opted to do away with the stodgy 4-5-1 formation from the first two games, in which Manchester City's Bernardo Silva had been cast as an ineffective, mournful ball-carrier, and instead added two attacking reference points in centre-forward Andre Silva and veteran winger Ricardo Quaresma.
The more adventurous setup allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to run at Iran's defence from his preferred inside-left position. The 33-year-old almost immediately tested Ali Beiranvand from an acute angle, but the Persepolis keeper held firm. More half chances followed but as a result of the Portuguese playing against type, spaces opened up in midfield for the Iranians to attack.
Just as the European champions' momentum seemed to have waned, Quaresma finished a delightful one-two with Adrien Silva with a trademark outside-of-the-boot curler into the top corner. Santos' daring strategy was vindicated.
His side survived a late scare when Mehdi Taremi hit the outside of the net in the wake of Karim Ansarifard's converted penalty. In the end, Portugal made it to the last 16 playing a little against type, but the goal that ultimately delivered them to the next round was as vintage Quaresma as its gets.
2. VAR helps, but potential for wrong decisions remains
Paraguayan official Enrique Caceres overruled himself once he had studied footage of Saeid Ezatolahi's foul on Ronaldo to award a penalty for Portugal. It was a textbook decision. VAR felt the referee might consider he had made a clear and obvious error by misjudging the nature of the contact. Caceres had a look and quickly revised his decision. It was a good one, even if Ronaldo had anticipated the contact.
Caceres was big enough to change his mind, but perhaps should have been just as brave when it came to Ronaldo elbowing a defender. But following a review that took too long, he felt the foul warranted only a yellow card. Iran manager Carlos Queiroz threw his arms up in disgust. Caceres was within his right to award only a caution, it was still a judgement call.
Some might feel he got it wrong, just as he did with Iran's penalty.
Sardar Azmoun's downward header bounced off Cedric's arm without the Portuguese defender being able to do anything about it. Caceres had looked at the footage and simply misjudged the situation, perhaps subconsciously finding for the Iranians after they had bitterly protested earlier decisions against them. Once again, the game showed that VAR can help referees get things right more often, but those who seek perfection will be disappointed.
3. Beiranvand's dream-like journey just beginning
Iran's keeper has been one of the main reasons why Queiroz's side exited the World Cup with only two goals conceded. It took some extra-special -- and in Spain's case, downright luck -- to beat the 25-year-old. A ricochet off Diego Costa. A wonder strike from Quaresma. That was all that got past the Persepolis keeper.
Ronaldo could not beat him here, not even from close range and uncontested by Iranian defenders. His second-half penalty, after referee Caceres had overruled himself on viewing footage of Saeid Ezatolahi's foul, saw Beiranvand guess correctly and save the shot with minimal fuss. A late booking for the star striker spoke of his frustration.
Twelve clean sheets in qualifying for the World Cup had hinted at him becoming one of the surprise performers in Russia. The son of a nomadic family had been a shepherd and played as a striker for his local club before he defied his family's wishes by pursuing a footballing career. He told the Guardian his father tore up his gloves in protest, forcing him to play barehanded. The teenager ran away to Tehran, where he met a football coach and eventually turned pro despite plenty of hardship.
Beiranvand came to Russia hoping for a big move to Europe, and it has done much for his chances. Saving a Ronaldo penalty at a World Cup doesn't have to spell the dream-like end of his journey. Maybe it's only the beginning.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein