World Cup 2014: Thomas Muller outshines Cristiano Ronaldo
It seemed this World Cup would see all the biggest stars shine on the grandest stage of all.
Neymar was the first to take his chance. Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben followed suit. Karim Benzema got in on the act. Then Lionel Messi lived up to his billing.
There was only one man we were still waiting for and Monday was Cristiano Ronaldo's opportunity to join the party.
The 29-year-old two-time Ballon D'or winner had declared himself "100%" fit during Sunday's pre-match news conference, adding that he has nothing to prove at this level despite underperforming in his two previous World Cups, with just two goals in 10 matches.
But the Real Madrid forward fluffed his lines as Portugal were demolished 4-0 by Germany.
There were, of course, mitigating circumstances. His preparations were disrupted by tendinosis in his left knee and by a thigh injury, while a 37th-minute red card for Portugal defender Pepe diluted the forward's effectiveness.
Nonetheless, Ronaldo failed to shine as Thomas Muller stole his thunder.
That might not have been in the script, but the Portugal captain still looked in high spirits as he left the Arena Fonte Nova on Monday. However, his refusal to conduct any media interviews was perhaps more instructive.
In the early stages of the contest, it appeared that he would make a statement on the pitch. One typically surging run set up Hugo Almeida for the game's first opening, before Ronaldo drew a sharp save from Manuel Neuer after busting clear.
- This was the fourth World Cup in a row that Germany opened their campaign by scoring four goals or more.
- Only Spain (17) have won more penalties at the World Cup than Germany (13).
- Portugal conceded four goals in a World Cup for the first time in their history.
- It was the 49th hat-trick in World Cup history.
Those actions were redolent of the man who almost single-handedly sealed Portugal's place in Brazil with a sensational hat-trick in the qualifying play-off second leg in Sweden; of the player who finished the season with 50 goals or more in all competitions for the fourth consecutive year as Real Madrid won their 10th European Cup.
In Europe's top five leagues last season, only Liverpool's Luis Suarez could match his haul of 31 goals, and nobody came close to his minutes-to-goals ratio (81.94), number of shots - both in total and on target - and the number of goals from outside the penalty area. Ronaldo also created more chances in La Liga than any of his previous campaigns at the Bernabeu.
Per Mertesacker talking about Cristiano Ronaldo
“He's the best player in the world, voted from the best... He's always a threat, even with 10 men he looks dangerous.”
He looked like Portugal's only threat in those opening stages, but his influence began to wane, Germany scored twice to take control, Pepe went sent off, a third goal arrived and his team were buried.
Team-mates constantly looked to Ronaldo - just after the half hour, Fabio Coentrao inexplicably attempted to find him in the box when he was in a glorious position to score himself - but it is difficult to remember many individuals shining at a World Cup without a strong side around them.
On Sunday, Ronaldo told reporters: "I believe one player is not a team. I'm here in the national team to help. I can make a difference in some of the games, but I can't carry the whole team on my back."
This probably goes some way to show the difference between his form for club and country.
Before the Germany defeat, Ronaldo averaged 3.8 shots per game in World Cup matches compared to 5.73 in La Liga last term. His other numbers were no more flattering: 1.5 shots on target per game compared to 3.1 for Real, a goal every 422 minutes rather than every 81.94, and an assist every 844 minutes against 282.22.
When the former Manchester United winger's name was read out before kick-off, the noise was deafening, but his followers would not get what they came to see.
On the hour mark, he was given a platform. A free-kick, 25 yards out, left of centre. Ronaldo territory.
He marked out his run-up - a good 10 yards - placed the ball delicately and glared at his target with legs apart, arms rigidly pointed down, chest pushed out. There was a collective holding of breath, cameras lenses were trained. Then he shot straight into the wall.
There would soon be more frustration as referee Milorad Mazic rejected Portugal's penalty appeal after a challenge on Eder. An irate Ronaldo chased after the Serbian official, gesticulating wildly.
Thomas Muller World Cup facts
- Muller has scored six goals in his last four World Cup games.
- Thomas Muller is the first player to score a hat-trick against Portugal in a World Cup game.
- Thomas Muller bagged the first World Cup hat-trick for Germany since Miroslav Klose in 2002 (v Saudi-Arabia).
Another free-kick dribbled along the ground before he finally connected brilliantly with one. It was heading in, only for Neuer to position himself well enough to punch it away to safety.
By then, the game had already gone. But at least Ronaldo proved his fitness ahead of games against Ghana and the United States, games which Portugal must win if they are to advance to the last 16.
"He's the best player in the world, voted from the best," Germany defender Per Mertesacker told BBC Sport. "He's always a threat; even with 10 men he looks dangerous.
"We tried to deal with him, not leave him in one-against-one situations. We tried to cope with him with good defensive work and we did it collectively well today."
Lukas Podolski on Thomas Muller
“He smells the situation - he's always there, where the ball is.”
At the forefront of a fine Germany team performance was Muller.
Coming into the finals, there was no shortage of debate about boss Joachim Low's decision to name just one recognised striker in his squad - 36-year-old Miroslav Klose - but Bayern Munich attacker Muller played the lone forward's role to perfection in the oppressive Salvador heat.
He was a handful from the first minute with his constant harrying, non-stop running, intelligent movement and knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Having won the Golden Boot and the award as the best young player in South Africa four years ago, Muller picked up where he left off and - at just 24 years of age - has now scored eight World Cup goals compared to Ronaldo's two.
Self-christened as 'The Raumdeuter' - the 'interpreter of space' - because of his intelligent play and ability to pick up pockets of space among opposition defences, Muller was unstoppable.
"Thomas is a crazy guy and he always has his foot in the right position," Germany's Lukas Podolski explained. "He smells the situation - he's always there, where the ball is."
Fellow forward Andre Schurrle added: "He's very important because he searches all the time for free space, he's on his legs for 90 minutes and he tries to do everything. He can go on to become an all-time great."
Thomas Muller facts
Club: Bayern Munich
Former Germany striker and current team manager Oliver Bierhoff highlighted Muller's "will to score, to try every match for 90 minutes to be in the game", adding: "If he doesn't have a good day he's still trying to do something, interacting with his colleagues.
"It's difficult for the opponents to understand what he's doing. Often he doesn't know it himself. Technically he is very good, he's hungry, he's always aware something can happen and never giving up. He can play the 'false nine' role very well."
Although Muller will dominate the headlines, Germany were exceptional as a unit.
Following strong starts by the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Netherlands and France, Low's side have laid down a marker of their own and, after finishing third, third and second at the last three World Cups, will be confident of challenging for a title they have not won since 1990.
They ensured the first week in Brazil continues to thrill. Ronaldo, though, has some catching up to do.
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