The knives were being sharpened when Cristiano Ronaldo was named on Portugal’s bench for the round of 16 fixture last night.
Just imagine the torrent misspelled slurs that would have been directed at Fernando Santos from the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s army of online incels had the Group H winners not thrashed Switzerland 6-1.
Underlining the narrative further was the performance of Ronaldo’s direct replacement, Goncalo Ramos, who scored the first hat-trick in a World Cup knockout game since 1990.
The 21-year-old probably expected his first campaign on the biggest international stage of all would be limited to substitute cameos but he was thrust into the spotlight when the most-discussed starting line-up of the tournament was announced around an hour and a half before kick-off.
With the world watching and the Ronaldo’s shadow stretched out absurdly long over the pitch, Ramos put Portugal 1-0 up in the 17th minute with rocketed left-foot finish high into the front-post corner from an acute angle.
His emphatic strike opened the floodgates as the Euro 2016 winners ran riot against a hapless Swiss outfit and by the time the Benfica striker was replaced by Portugal’s No7 in the 74th minute, he had ensured the match ball would spend the night in his hotel room.
His second goal was a classic poacher’s effort in the six-yard box while his third was an expertly-executed stab (as Ally McCoist correctly dubbed it on co-commentary) to lift the ball over an onrushing Yann Sommer.
Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro and Rafael Leao were also on the scoresheet but the night belonged to Ramos, whose reputation has been propelled into the stratosphere in a matter of hours.
Not only that, he’s kicked down the door of Dream Team World Cup and demanded the attention of every gaffer in the land.
There are no games today or tomorrow as the remaining eight teams prepare for the quarter-finals, something Dream Team World Cup bosses should also be doing.
It seems inevitable that Ramos, who also registered an assist, will be one of the most-popular recruits in the next 48 hours – his ownership has already increased from 0.1% to 1.2%.
The youngster took Switzerland for 30 points last night, by far and away the biggest matchday haul of the tournament to date, and he’ll surely be selected to lead the line against a hardworking Morocco side on Saturday.
Priced at £3million because he was initially viewed as a back-up option, Ramos suddenly looks very affordable as the starting centre-forward for one of the strongest teams in Qatar.
The debate about whether or not Ronaldo’s teams are better off without him has been done to death in recent months but last night’s events will be wielded as damning evidence by those who believe he’s not worthy of a spot in Portugal’s XI.
At 37 years old, he has lost the explosiveness and sharpness that made him one of the greatest players of all time and while he still offers plenty between the width of the posts, particularly in the air, it’s getting harder for his loyal supporters to justify the claim that he should still be one of the first names on the team sheet.
It’s rare to witness a passing of the torch midway through a major tournament but Ramos’ hat-trick has caused many fans to consider Portugal a far greater threat than first thought in Qatar.
It will interesting to see just how many Dream Team gaffers use a transfer to bring the Navegadores’ No26 into their XI before quarter-finals get underway…