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World Cup: Brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo scores game’s lone goal in Portugal’s win over Morocco

This World Cup will have a winner and undoubtedly will produce many memorable moments over the next 3 1/2 weeks.

Yet it may forever be remembered for Cristiano Ronaldo.

If the tournament started with a debate over whether Argentina’s Lionel Messi or Portugal’s Ronaldo is the greatest player of his generation, that debate could be over even before the competition is.

Two games into the World Cup, Ronaldo hasn’t just been good, he’s been brilliant.

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On Wednesday, in a game in which Portugal was again outplayed, Ronaldo picked his teammates up, put them on his shoulders and, with some help from goalkeeper Rui Patricio, carried them to victory. This time it was a 1-0 win over Morocco, giving the reigning European champions four points following two games of Group B play and moving them a big step closer to the knockout round.

Next week’s final group-play game with Iran will ultimately determine Portugal’s fate, while Morocco’s chances expired with its second shutout loss in as many games.

And Ronaldo ended the suspense early, ducking to knock home a header in the fourth minute. It was his fourth goal in 94 minutes in this tournament, eclipsing his total from his first three World Cups combined.

It also was his 85th career score for Portugal, breaking a tie with Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas for most international goals by a European. Only Iranian Ali Daei, with 109, has more.

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Ronaldo looks like he could challenge that record before he leaves Russia.

“Obviously Cristiano, he’s like a fine port wine,” Portuguese coach Fernando Santos said. “He knows how to refine his capacity at age. He is constantly evolving, contrary to a regular player.

“He knows what he can do. He knows himself, and he knows how to improve himself.”

Colombia’s James Rodriguez led the last World Cup with six goals; Ronaldo is two short of that, and he’s not even out of the group stage yet.

His score Wednesday came off a corner kick that started with Bernardo Silva playing the ball in short to Joao Moutinho. The midfielder then sent a right-footed cross into the box for Ronaldo, who dipped between Moroccan defenders Manuel Da Costa and Karim El Ahmadi to nod in the waist-high pass.

With bodies tumbling through the box, Morocco wanted a foul called on Portuguese defender Pepe, but U.S. referee Mark Geiger, working his first match in the middle in Russia, let the play go.

Ronaldo’s first goal in Portugal’s opener — when he had a hat trick — also came in the fourth minute. So if you’re going to see him play, don’t be late.

“The most important thing was to win the game, to get the three points. If we lost, we could be out,” said Ronaldo, whose four goals lead the tournament. “The expectation is to continue our work, to try to improve in the group phase. We’re almost there. The goal is to think match by match.”

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Despite being well-marked, Ronaldo almost doubled the lead five minutes later, sending a right-footed shot across the goal and just wide at the far post. Near the end of the half, he nearly picked up an assist, chesting down a ball and then using his left foot to send it forward for Goncalo Guedes racing into the box.

But Morocco keeper Munir Mohamedi got his gloved left hand up just in time to knock Guedes’ shot away. It would prove to be Portugal’s last shot on goal of the game.

Nevertheless, each time Ronaldo came near the ball, the crowd of 78,011 at Luzhniki Stadium either cheered or gasped in anticipation.

“It is a little easier to play with a player who has a goal opportunity and who scores,” Morocco coach Herve Renard said. “The most gifted players are the ones who make all the difference.”

And again Ronaldo was the difference. In Portugal’s opener, his goal in the 88th minute — the first he has scored on a free kick in a major international competition — stole a point in a game that Spain dominated. On Wednesday, Morocco was clearly the better team, but Portugal got the win.

“There was no intensity in the game,” Santos said. “We started well. We were putting the pressure on. As happened with the Spain, after 10 or 15 minutes the team couldn’t really play.

“We have to do better.”

Or they’ll have to keep relying on Ronaldo and Patricio to bail them out. The Portuguese keeper made three saves Wednesday, including a pair of exceptional ones a minute apart early in the second half — the first a leaping two-handed grab of a shot by Younes Belhanda and the other a sprawling defection on a Belhanda header.

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Portugal’s win in the Euros two years ago already has given Ronaldo something Messi doesn’t have: a major international title on the senior level. Argentina is winless — and goalless — in four finals with Messi.

And though Messi couldn’t end that streak in Brazil four years ago, he was named the player of the tournament. Two games into this World Cup, Ronaldo is making a push for that award as well.

“What’s different about him is his form,” Santos said. “He’s in very good form. And his talent. The whole benefits from that, and I believe we’re going to benefit from it further.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


UPDATES:

9:15 a.m.: This article was updated with comments and additional details.

This article was originally published at 7:20 a.m.


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