REUTERS - Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick earned Portugal a thrilling 4-2 comeback win over a brave Northern Ireland side as three players were sent off in an eventful World Cup qualifying Group F match in Belfast on Friday.
Ronaldo's three goals, two trademark headers and a free kick, sent Portugal back to the top of Group F and made him his country's second highest goalscorer of all time with 43 goals, ahead of the great Eusebio who scored 41.
"This is historic for me, I'd scored a lot of hat-tricks for Real Madrid but never any for Portugal. It was a special match, I feel really happy," a grinning Ronaldo told Portuguese television RTP as he held the match ball.
The visitors were firm favourites but Northern Ireland, who had held Portugal to a 1-1 draw in Porto last year and shocked Russia 1-0 in Belfast last month, proved tough opponents.
"We went through a lot of difficulties, particularly in the first half. But we stuck together and our effort was worth it in the end," centre back Bruno Alves told Portuguese television RTP.
Portugal initially struggled to penetrate Northern Ireland's defence and it took a piece of individual brilliance from Alves to break the deadlock.
The self-proclaimed lover of foot-volley seemed to be on the beach practising the sport when, from a corner, he applied an unorthodox first-time shot with the inside of his foot which drifted into the net after 29 minutes.
RED CARD FEST
The Northern Irish harassed Portugal's defence with a series of clever long balls and were spurred on by an ardent crowd at the small but picturesque Windsor Park.
The home side kept pressing and got their reward before halftime when centre back Gareth McAuley towered above the Portuguese defence and levelled with a textbook header from a corner.
The Portuguese were dealt a major blow just before the break when striker Helder Postiga was shown a straight red card for a head-butt on McAuley.
Forward Jamie Ward compounded Portugal's misery by tipping in a goalmouth scramble after 52 minutes from another corner.
Portugal got back into the match when Kevin Brunt was shown a second yellow card and was also sent off, making it 10 against 10.
Ronaldo headed in another corner to make it 2-2 with 20 minutes to go and another one put Portugal in front with 77 minutes on the clock.
Northern Ireland's Kyle Lafferty was also shown a straight red card before Ronaldo completed his hat-trick with a fine free kick and took the match ball home as a souvenir.
"Eusebio's record was not the main focus. Going above him in the scorers' list was a natural thing to happen and it was only a matter of time, but still, I am really proud of having matched him," Ronaldo said.
Group rivals Russia beat Luxembourg 4-1 on Friday and are second, on 15 points with one game in hand. The Portuguese, on 17 points, host Israel and Luxembourg in the final two qualifiers in October.
(Reporting by Daniel Alvarenga in Lisbon, editing by Ed Osmond)