Welcome back to the Euros everyone; it’s been a long and patient wait for quarter-final action, but finally it’s here today, with a stretch of single games on our screens over the next four days. Poland vs Portugal was the treat up on offer today, with the impressive and methodical Eastern Europeans coming up against the underperforming, arguably one-man orientated nation at the very western edge of the continent. It was grit vs flair, power vs pace and team ethics vs self-centered captaincy, but most importantly Poland vs Portugal in Marseille.
Poland kept their winning formula which proved victorious against Switzerland in the last round, keeping faith in a disappointingly lacking-in-goals Robert Lewandowski, whilst Fernando Santos again tinkered with an as-of-yet lacking in mojo side, bringing Eliseu and Renato Sanches in for Andre Gomes and Raphael Guerreiro. Poland were left to drop (not literally) their red shorts for this tie, swapping them for white yet again after coming up against a blood-red-kitted opponent, but it didn’t seem to do them any harm in the early stages of the game. In fact, they were only spurred on to press forward, and before you could say ‘Portugal are such a one man team the rest of the side could be immobile pensioners and Ronaldo would still win the game for them’, Poland had scored. Emphatically so. Lukasz Piszczek strode casually to the half way line on the right, floated a hopeful ball over to Kamil Grosicki, who luckily picked it up after Cedric Soares’ shoddy attempt at a header, leaving the left winger to just whip an inviting cross into the box. Who was there, but one of the most potent strikers in the world, of course! Lewandowski invaded into the six-yard box largely unmarked, and just side footed a simple finish just out of Rui Patricio’s reach, sending his side 1-0 up after just a minute and 40 seconds (the second fastest goal in Euro history!). It was a beautiful move to watch, but one that you have to admit the entire Portuguese side should’ve done better with, a needless lapse of judgement on their part.
Following that shocking start, Portugal had to go for it. Cristiano Ronaldo particularly, and he sent his team a statement by taking pot shots (which probably would’ve gone in for a player of his class) and long-range free kicks, only for an organised and unselfish Polish defence to stand firm and block them. If that wasn’t a message to their opponents of how hard it would be to break them down tonight, I don’t know what else Poland could’ve done. Then Adam Nawalka’s well-oiled side grew even more into the game, and their lead, by striding forward when they had the chances, and linking up well together. Grosicki, Lewandowski, Milik and surprisingly enough Piszczek mainly (from right back) were all big parts of what their side was creating, playing short passes to outfox the slow-of-minds and slow-of-legs Pepe and Jose Fonte, succeeding as they did it too. Their game plan was working perfectly so far, with Glik and Pazdan holding up the aerial threats (Portugal were mainly reduced to a load of crosses as their wingers were quickly pressed) of Ronaldo and Nani, and the pairing of Krychowiak and Mączyński getting physical and imposing in midfield. They were pushing the Portuguese players around, and the fiery Mediterranean’s were sure to take dislike to that.
But the humble wonder kid Renato Sanches, reminiscent of a giant, shaggy Ruud Gullit in the attacking midfield area, used that dislike to power in an equaliser for his side. After a neat one-two with the experienced Nani, the youngster used his instinct and turned to line himself up, just on the edge of the 18-yard box, for a speculative effort. Now, this is just what it would’ve been, had the sea of white shirts around him, specifically the one with the number 10 and Krychowiak on the back, not been in place to offer a deflection past Lukasz Fabianski. Take nothing away from Sanches though, he was the one who fired in the effort, and got his just rewards with the ball sailing past a despairing Fabianski, to level up matters. Let’s not forget too, this guy is only 18 and was on his first start of the tournament, which is astounding at such a massive international stage!
That goal on 33 minutes finished off the half really in terms of chances, as both sides were content to just sit back and wait for half time instructions from their respective managers, but at least left it as an open game for the second 45. Overall, the first half could be concluded as surprisingly high-quality, particularly for two sides who weren’t really expected to challenge for semi-final spots, and packed with entertaining end-to-end action, which we could only hope would continue into a more nervy second half.
Perhaps it was understandable then that chances did come at more of a premium at the start of the second half, with very little to shout about before 65 minutes other than Ronaldo’s side-netting blast and Adrien Silva’s blocked edge-of-the-box shot. Poland broke away in short spells on occasion, with Krychowiak and Mączyński dictating the play for their side, carrying the ball forward like draft horses, only for their forwards to struggle in creating opportunities. After the clock hit 66 minutes or so though, Poland came to life and decided to actually start attacking for once in the half. Arkadiusz Milik struck a dangerous shot at Rui Patricio, Robert Lewandowski became an available option, and the wing duo Grosicki and Blaszczykowski got more of the ball, whilst at both ends the tackles flew in and the risky substitutions were made. Experienced heads Joao Moutinho and Ricardo Quaresma came on for Portugal, whilst Poland brought on a player who I thought looked promising in the group stage in winger Bartosz Kapustka. Chances were reduced to weak headers, as neither side really found the space after these disruptive subs to get close to scoring. The game was edging further another 30 minutes for both sides, who also incidentally both went to extra-time in their round of 16 matches, and after Blaszczykowski’s last-minute free kick lacked any powerful response from his teammates, it was confirmed we would be treated to the dreaded prolonged period.
Both sides must’ve been mentally and physically shattered after their previous outings, against Switzerland and Croatia respectively, and they surely weren’t looking forward to extra-time, but they let themselves in for it. Portugal immediately went for the goal at the start, Ronaldo going very close when the ball just got stuck under his feet, unmarked in the box. The western Europeans looked like the side with the extra beans (Harry), especially when they replaced William Carvalho with a rangy and powerful Danilo in midfield. Poland refreshed their tiring and battling side, bringing Tomasz Jodlowiec on for Mączyński in a useful change, putting impetus back into the side. Soon after, the Poles had their very own Gazza moment, Lewandowski sliding a perfect ball between Patricio and his defence, only for no one to get a decisive touch to it. There were no other big chances in the half, and nobody really expected there to be any in the second. To be truthful too, there weren’t any. At all. Time went on so slowly by the end, and we all just wanted it to be over. So on we went to penalties (and another ad break, sigh), to decide who would come out victors.
Ronaldo stepped up first for his side (of course) and tucked the ball in. Lewandowski then coolly placed the ball in the bottom right corner. Sanches surprisingly took the next, but rifled it in easily. Milik was handed responsibility for his side’s second, and slammed it in (just) off the post. Moutinho placed the ball down and went in the same corner, scoring as well. Glik bravely took the ball for his second penalty of the tournament, getting the same result as the two takers before him. Nani picked his spot top right, 4-3. As Blaszczykowski took his, it stayed 4-3, as Patricio made a great stop to keep the effort out. Quaresma then dragged Portugal into the semi-finals, despite the fingertips of Fabianski reaching the ball. Heartbreak for Poland, who did so well in the tournament and the match, but elation for Portugal.
Team of the Day
I can only say the winning side today, and after a lot of deliberation I think it will be… Portugal. I really didn’t want the Portuguese to win the shoot-out, as I thought Poland were the stronger side in the first half and extra time, but they came out victors in the end, and even though they haven’t won a game in 90 minutes at these championships, you can’t dispute they have won with grit. They were determined to get this far, and they have defied critics (I am one) to reach the semi-final now.
Player of the Day
Renato Sanches stood out for me today, not just for his goal, but for his all-around performance throughout the 120 minutes and his emphatic penalty. He tracked the ball and ran past defenders with it like, as I would describe him, a loyal, carefree puppy with boundless heaps of energy, who is just developing into a mature, refined pedigree. A great prospect on the hands of both Portugal and Bayern Munich here.
Goal of the Day
I’d probably, from the two, go for Lewandowski, as I think it required a lot more skill to piece up each part of its jigsaw, the Piszczek 80-yard or so pass, the Grosicki cross and the perfect Lewandowski finish. Both goals required a bit of luck, the lack of a header from Cedric for the first and the deflection for the second, but I think the entire move for the first deserved that luck a bit more.
Shock of the Day
Seeing Ryan Giggs rear his controversial and as-of-yet inexperienced (in terms of punditry) head on the ITV coverage of the match certainly made me look twice at the screen, as I never expected him to come out on national television during a period in which he is linked with numerous jobs. It was sad to see him go from Manchester United from a fan’s perspective, but even more miserable to watch him desperately rake in the money as a knowledgeable yet mundane pundit for the loaded-but-shockingly biased and immoral ITV. Oh, and on another note, (the question from thousands on twitter was) where were his eyebrows?
That streaker or ‘idiot’ as the ITV commentators branded him, cracked me up in an otherwise plain 30 minutes of extra-time, and I applaud him for finding a way through security and onto the pitch. He had some pace too, didn’t he?
Day Rating: 8/10 (I’m just going to introduce this as a way to sum up the day, considering we’ll only have a match a day from now on.)
I’m Looking Forward to…
Quite the spectacle tomorrow, with the talented but undervalued Welsh side up against the mismatch of superstars, as dysfunctional sometimes as the Avengers, always arguing with each other but with the same basic aims. Bale, Ramsey, Williams and Allen will all have to be at their very best for their country to even match the levels of Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Nainggolan and Alderweireld for the Belgians, so it promises to be a top, top match.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!