Ronaldo's star quality is Russia-bound as Portugal qualify for World Cup
LISBON -- Madonna was in the crowd at Estadio da Luz as Portugal sealed their place at the World Cup, and you can be sure she was not there to watch Switzerland.
The pop icon, whose adopted son David Banda is a member of Benfica's youth academy, knows all about star quality, and this was a night that saw Cristiano Ronaldo perform on his home stage with the expectation that he would inspire Portugal to the victory needed to claim qualification.
In the end, it did not quite work out like that. Portugal duly secured the win they required, defeating Switzerland 2-0 on Tuesday thanks to a Johan Djourou own goal and Andre Silva's second-half strike, but Ronaldo was nothing more than a bit-part player as his teammates rose to the occasion in Lisbon. The Real Madrid star, who has 15 goals in this qualifying campaign, had a rare off night, failing to either score or create a goal.
But Portugal now have the likes of Bernardo Silva, Joao Mario and William Carvalho to make a difference when Ronaldo isn't quite at his best, and the end result was still success for the European champions -- just as it was in Paris last year when Fernando Santos' team won the Euro 2016 final against France despite losing Ronaldo, their captain and talisman, to a first-half injury.
This is an evolving Portugal team, one that can prosper even when Ronaldo is not at his brilliant best, but he remains the star attraction. And so it goes that his presence in Russia next summer will make the World Cup that extra bit more exciting and dramatic.
People will want to see Ronaldo win and lose, score and miss, even laugh and cry. His detractors might not admit it, but the tournament would be poorer without him, especially if, in his absence, the football world was forced to endure Switzerland's functional and unambitious approach to the game.
As it is, Portugal will take their place as winners of Group B, while the Swiss, whose winning record in the group was ended by this defeat, must now negotiate the lottery of a playoff next month against Northern Ireland, Greece, Sweden or the Republic of Ireland.
Few outside Switzerland will take the time monitor the progress of Vladimir Petkovic's team next month; the Swiss side are not a box office attraction, even with the explosive but inconsistent talents of Xherdan Shaqiri.
As for Ronaldo, next summer it is likely to represent his last chance of tasting glory in the only major competition he has yet to win. He will be 33 by the time the tournament comes around, and his performance on Tuesday, committed though it was, hinted at a waning of his incredible powers.
The first half largely passed him by, and the first real glimpse of his talents came early in the second half when he jinked past right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner and into the penalty area before putting the ball out of his own reach with an uncharacteristically heavy touch. Ronaldo's frustration was evident as he threw his arms into the air, just as he did under a minute later after skewing a left-foot shot high and wide from 20 yards.
There was another moment, on 79 minutes, when Ronaldo failed to beat goalkeeper Yann Sommer in a one-on-one. Perhaps it was simply part of an off night and nothing more, but Ronaldo rarely, if ever, misses when he is facing down a goalkeeper, and it was certainly a rare sign of his fallibility.
He was still desperate to score, to get one goal closer to breaking Ferenc Puskas' record of most international goals by a European player, and Ronaldo was typically frustrated when teammate Bernardo Silva wasn't able to find him at the far post in the 92nd minute.
But the bigger picture for Ronaldo is that he is at least able to look forward to his fourth World Cup. Gareth Bale, Ronaldo's Real Madrid teammate, will have to watch the tournament from home after Wales failed to qualify, and other big names have also missed out.
Ronaldo will be there and will strive to make an impact, but perhaps for the first time since he burst onto the scene over a decade ago, Portugal will not travel to a World Cup with their hopes resting squarely on their captain's shoulders.
He could still make all the difference with a game-changing moment of magic, though, and that's why the world will be watching. Despite age catching up with him, Ronaldo is still a must-see footballer, and every World Cup needs the very best to turn up and show us what they are all about.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_