Portugal dominates N. Macedonia, Ronaldo qualifies for another World Cup | National sports

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PORTO, Portugal (AP) — There will be at least one more World Cup for Cristiano Ronaldo.

The all-time top scorer in men’s international football will be playing in his fifth World Cup after Portugal beat North Macedonia 2-0 in the European qualifiers on Tuesday.

“Goal accomplished,” Ronaldo said on Instagram after the game. “We reached the World Cup in Qatar. We are where we deserve to be.

This time there was no stunning late winner for North Macedonia to eliminate the traditional powerhouse like against European champions Italy last Thursday in Palermo.

Bruno Fernandes opened the scoring for the hosts after a first-half assist from Ronaldo and added another goal in the second to secure Portugal‘s place in the World Cup for the sixth consecutive time.

“It’s a special win,” Fernandes said. “We achieved our goal, that’s what counted. Portugal had better games, but this one will stay in our memories because it gave us a place in the World Cup.

There will be no first appearance in the final for North Macedonia, who were coming off their first appearance at a major tournament in the 2020 European Championship.

Having escaped the playoffs, Portugal will be a top seed in Friday’s draw for football’s showcase event in November.

Ronaldo, 37, will play his 10th consecutive major tournament in a streak that began at Euro 2004. He played in four World Cups and five Euros, winning the European title in 2016.

Top scorer in men’s international football with 115 goals, Ronaldo is the only player to have scored at least once in the final of nine consecutive major tournaments.

Ronaldo and the rest of the squad gathered around a Portuguese flag in midfield as fans celebrated and sang the national anthem at Porto’s Estádio do Dragão.

“We are happy because the Portuguese will be able to see Portugal again in a World Cup,” said coach Fernando Santos. “The players showed they were fully committed from the start and overcame a tough opponent.”

Portugal also had to go through qualifying rounds for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, beating Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2010 and Sweden in 2014.

He had been relegated to the playoffs this time after conceding late and giving up a home lead in the final group game against Serbia last year. In the opener of the qualifiers last week, Portugal beat Turkey 3-1 at Porto after the visitors wasted an 85th-minute penalty that could have erased a two-goal first-half lead.

“It would have been unfair for Portugal not to qualify for the World Cup,” said veteran defender Pepe. “We showed our strength on the pitch to deliver this victory to our supporters.”

Ronaldo missed Portugal’s first good chance in a 14th-minute breakaway on Tuesday, then gave his Manchester United team-mate a smooth pass for the opener after a blunder from the North Macedonian defense at the 32nd. Fernandes entered the box and fired a low shot at the far post, then added the lead from close range after a pass from Diogo Jota in the 65th.

North Macedonia, which gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, did not progress past the group stage of last year’s Euros, losing all three matches. But as well as the shocking 1-0 win over Italy last week, he also surprised with a win over Germany last year in their European qualifying group, in which he finished second behind the Germans and ahead of Romania.

Coach Santos made some important returns to the squad on Tuesday, with defenders Pepe and João Cancelo playing from start after missing the game against Turkey. Pepe had tested positive for COVID-19, while Cancelo was suspended.

Failure to qualify for Portugal could have meant the end of the line with the national team for coach Santos and veteran players Pepe, José Fonte and João Moutinho, all of whom are 35 or older.

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