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Ronaldo’s return boosts Portugal just in time for World Cup

Jun 11, 2014, 12:49 AM EDT

140610_Ronaldo AP

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — There was some hesitation, there were some tentative movements and there was a brief injury scare on Tuesday, but for the first time in over two weeks, Cristiano Ronaldo played in a competitive match on Tuesday.

In a run-up to a World Cup in which star players being ruled out due to injury have become daily headlines, Portugal welcomed back the Ballon d’Or winner in Tuesday’s 5-1 victory over Ireland at MetLife Stadium.

He started and went 65 minutes in his return from lingering issues with tendinosis around his knee and a separate, mysterious thigh injury, playing a key role in two of Portugal’s goals. Ronaldo’s return to the pitch eases what was a growing concern that he might join the laundry list of injured stars — from Colombia’s Radamel Falcao, to France’s Franck Ribery and the Netherlands’ Rafael van der Vaart — as those missing out on the World Cup, but Ronaldo looked fit on Tuesday.

But Ronaldo is healthy enough — even if not 100 percent — and so too are midfielder Raul Meirelles and defender Pepe. Both were also struggling with injuries, but Meirelles looked sharp in his 65 minutes on the pitch, and Pepe closed out the match.

“Physically, all of the players are fit to play, so there are no concerns whatsoever,” coach Paulo Bento said postgame.

Thirteen minutes into Tuesday’s match, Bento’s decision to start Ronaldo looked like it could be disastrous. The captain was tackled 35 yards from goal and went down grabbing that troublesome left knee, which had a band wrapped around it. Ronaldo shook it off, though, and continued on to create some dangerous combinations on the left wing with fullback Fábio Coentrão.

“I think it’s great for the team,” Portugal midfielder Nani, who had two assists on Tuesday, said of Ronaldo’s return. “It showed tonight – he’s good, he’s well, he can help the team. I think in the first game he will be 100 percent, too.”

The hesitance from Ronaldo was clear at times as he pulled out of some tackles and looked slower than usual on the ball. He warmed up cautiously, too, taking it easy in the small-sided game during warmups and he looked like someone who was cautious to not over-exerting himself shooting.

What was abundantly obvious, though, is that Ronaldo at any percentage of health is a major positive for Portugal, who looked flat and uninspiring against Mexico on Friday without their captain.

On Tuesday, his cheeky backheel to Coentrão led to Portugal’s second goal, and Ronaldo’s header that was initially saved was then finished by Hugo Almeida for Portugal’s third goal. One of Ronaldo’s signature free kicks smacked the post in the 19th minute, and he had several surging diagonal runs in which he cut in from the left flank to have a dangerous opportunity on goal.

But exactly how the superstar feels continues to remain a mystery. Ronaldo didn’t talk to the press after emerging from the locker room over two hours after the final whistle.

The message from his coach and teammates, though — as vague and guarded as it may be — is that Ronaldo is healthy enough to not only play, but make an impact. That’s the best news Portugal can get as they open up Group G play against heavyweights Germany on Monday.

“He had a good match. Considering he hadn’t played competitively for a few weeks, I thought he did well,” Bento said. “Players like Ronaldo are definitely important for any team they play for. It’s good for us. We are delighted.”

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