Behind a hat trick from Goncalo Ramos, Portugal have advanced out of the round of 16 for the first time since 2006 with a 6-1 win over Switzerland on Tuesday. Fernando Santos made the big call to bench Cristiano Ronaldo for Goncalo Ramos and was vindicated quickly. After Ronaldo's conduct against South Korea, he was benched and Portugal responded with their best performance of the tournament so far. Ramos is earned only his fourth cap but with a hat trick and an assist in the match, he'll be making quite a few more appearances for the national team after this one. Only 21, Ramos now has three goals in this World Cup.
Without Ronaldo, the Portugal press was ruthless and kept Switzerland off balance all match. Santos also made the decision to start Diogo Dalot and Raphael Guerreiro in the match and was rewarded with a goal and two assists by the duo. With a headed goal before halftime, Pepe became the second oldest male to score at the World Cup behind only Roger Milla of Cameroon who scored in the 1994 World Cup.
At 39y, 283d Pepe has become the oldest player to score in the men's knockout stage of the tournament and also surpassed teammate Cristiano Ronaldo's goal against Ghana during the group stage of this year's tournament. Manuel Akanji did net a consolation goal for Switzerland but it wouldn't be enough to stave off the Portuguese onslaught. Ronaldo did eventually enter the game for Ramos late but the result was already assured as Santos withdrew three players to look forward to facing Morocco in the quarter finals on Saturday.
Here are a few takeaways from the match:
Vindication for Santos
Benching a national legend is never an easy decision but a line must be drawn somewhere. With the talent available to him, Santos was able to call upon Ramos, but even in that case it was surprising that someone with so little experience was called upon instead of Andre Silva or Rafael Leao. In 74 minutes, Ramos dominated the match putting five shots on target scoring three goals and assisting another. He even helped draw the corner that led to Pepe's goal as he was everywhere during the match. But Ramos wasn't the only tough decision for Ramos.
Joao Cancelo was benched to play Diogo Dalot as well. Cancelo struggled on the right side of the pitch and Dalot dominated his flank. Overall, there were four changes from Portugal's opening match versus Ghana, and each player involved performed as the team's depth shined. Santos came into the World Cup expected to grind out matches defensively and he has opened things up leaning into Portugal's strength in attack. This has turned Portugal into a team that can certainly win the World Cup.
Leao is magical
Leao only needed five minutes on the pitch to make Switzerland pay. Having a player of his caliber coming off of the bench feels unfair but that shows just how deep Portugal are. Leao already bailed the team out against Ghana and has now netted his second goal of this world cup. Already with six goals and four assists in Serie A play, he's showing that he can play anywhere during this World Cup.
With Morocco up next having game changers like Leao in the reserves will be important. Morocco hasn't allowed a goal by the opposition during this world cup. The only goal that they conceded was an own goal by Nayef Aguerd as the defense has been up for every task thrown their way. But the Portugal attack will be on a new level and Leao is part of the reason for that.
What's next for Ronaldo?
After scoring a hat trick, Santos has to roll with Ramos for the next match. Ronaldo didn't stay on the pitch celebrating with the team after the match so he may have noticed that this could be the beginning of the end. WIth how Portugal have performed without him on the pitch -- something that was also the case for Manchester United prior to his contract being terminated -- it's hard to say that he improves teams at this stage of his career. Portugal are more unpredictable and stronger at pressing without him which is why Santos has turned the team into World Cup contender by benching Ronaldo.
Ronaldo may have inspired this generation of Portuguese soccer players, but it's time to pass the torch as they have overtaken him in current ability.