Today brought another return to the inescapable draw of international tournament football, following an agonising delay between the quarter-final and semi-final phases, with the clash of both the underdogs and the underrated in Wales vs Portugal. It was a relief to finally get to the point where a ball would be kicked in the end, as the obsession of the British media to capitalise on this unexpected and unprecedented success has been absolutely infuriating at best (from an Englishman’s perspective at least). I’m not sure if you could tell, but I was rooting for Portugal in this match, who seem to have had little coverage if any at all, other than the idiotic article the other day asking if Renato Sanches really is 18. If nothing else, I was hoping for a win for the Portuguese to shut up all the cocky Welsh fans who were predicting an appearance in the final and even a win already. Even though I thought Poland and Belgium would’ve been a better and more fitting battle for this grand occasion, we had to accept what we had in front of us, and tuck into what I predicted pre-match would be a low-tempo, turgid affair between two sides who didn’t want to lose. Yes, there may have been both Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo on offer, but I didn’t feel they would be any difference if they were deprived of the ball in a tight, midfield-dictated match. It was up to both them, and their teammates, to change the destiny of the game, and they could definitely be inspired to by their passionate and long-suffering fans.
Even throughout the lack of consideration for Wales' opposition tonight, Portugal did make three changes to the side which went to a marathon bore-fest (at times) of extra-time and penalties against Poland, with Danilo, Bruno Alves and Raphael Guerreiro coming in for William Carvalho, Pepe and Eliseu. At first inspection, these changes seemed to weaken the line-up of Fernando Santos’ hardy unit, with the abrasive Pepe and commanding Carvalho particular losses, with the former injured and the latter suspended. But Danilo, if unspectacular in performance so far, is a solid player who can easily dictate play from a deeper midfield position, and Alves, despite not yet featuring in the tournament prior to this game, is a wily old character who can be as effective as Pepe on his day. They were sure to be right up for this match too.
Wales, on the other hand, made just the two enforced alterations to their starting XI, Andy King and James Collins replacing the banned duo of Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies. While Ramsey and Davies are two arguably regular top-6 standard players in the BPL, King and Collins only hold the pedigree, while experienced, of bottom-half BPL performers, and that could prove to be the downfall of Chris Coleman’s side in this match. While Portugal had Champions League experience all across their ranks, from Ronaldo, Nani and Sanches to Rui Patricio and Danilo, Wales had to count on Bale, Williams and arguably Joe Allen as really their only star players at the top of their game.
From the very start of the game, we could tell this match would certainly be fiery, with the pressure high, the tackles strong and the hair preened (especially on Bale and Ronaldo, not quite so much with Joe Allen). The first 20 minutes or so didn’t match this passion in chances though, with James Collins’ headlock on Ronaldo from a cross (not even called back for a foul) restricting the only decent chance for an actual shot on target, before Bale wasted a good chance from distance on his left peg with a strike straight at Patricio. Both sides appeared only really to want to counter-attack, and that didn’t bode that well for the prospects of actual entertainment for the match. Most of the Portuguese play filtered through the pacey and skilful Joao Mario on the left side of midfield, but most of it fell apart after 20 passes or so worth of play, with someone, usually Nani or Renato Sanches, losing the ball with a shoddy pass or shot just when they were in. Wales just brought nine players back at most times, Robson-Kanu the only player holding his ground in Portugal’s half when his side were defending, successfully if you a well-organised but painfully dull clean sheet as a success. ‘Tactical’ was the word desperately used by Clive Tyldesley to attempt to salvage a poor first half for ITV’s ratings figures, and it demonstrated the lack of quality in this non-event when he begged ‘please don’t go away’ as the ad-break rolled up again. At least Roy Keane was a bit more blunt with ‘poor’.
Thank God then, for Cristiano Ronaldo. After Joao Mario’s inviting free kick into the box was headed away by Andy King, a well thought out corner followed, with Mario playing it short to an unmarked Raphael Guerreiro, who whipped in a perfect cross for Ronaldo’s irrepressible, stooping head to meet it in the box, effectively head-butting the ball (with some grace) past Wayne Hennessey. This was only four minutes into the half, forcing Chris Coleman to tear up his second half notes straight away. Well, it they were being torn in the outcome of that goal, they would’ve be ripped to shreds just three minutes later, when a seemingly well-wide low effort from that man Ronaldo again was poked in by a goal-hunting predator in Nani, sliding in for a second to Portugal’s advantage. Welsh fans must’ve been in tears, but I was relieved to finally have some excitement in the match, which Portugal had, prior to this match, hardly provided us with, barring the 3-3 draw with Hungary in what seems an eternity ago.
Coleman now had to chance his hand. Sam Vokes came on for Joe Ledley, with the Welsh seemingly swapping to a more direct 5-2-3, with an isolated front three, when not supported, of Bale, Robson-Kanu and the Burnley target man. But they still had to deal with a rampant Portuguese attack, reminded of this from Ronaldo’s dipping free kick which nicked the crossbar before flying over the goal. Then Wales went on overload for any opportunity of a goal. MK Dons striker (!?!) Simon Church came on, bringing with him a proper poacher’s style in place of an ineffective and possession-starved Robson-Kanu, then Collins was taken off for Jonny Williams, who had performed admirably so far in this tournament despite being shoved in and out of the side at late notice most of the time. What was their formation now? 4-2-4? 4-4-2? Nobody really seemed to know, with Bale attempting to passionately salvage something by interchanging between midfield and attack, but it all looked a bit desperate. This side was finally beginning to look like the collection of lower to mid-table quality BPL players with one special individual thrown in that we all thought before the tournament it was, and it was sad to see really. They were unravelling before our eyes.
It could’ve got worse for them, Wayne Hennessey spilling one shot forward only for Joao Mario to shunt wide with only the goalkeeper to bear, and also letting a Danilo shot from close-range squirm under him, leaving the ball gaping just in front of the line, before he dived on it ahead of Nani. Ronaldo had an attempt to round Hennessey denied, hitting the side netting while losing balance, but by this point Portugal were just enjoying themselves. Wales had pretty much lost hope as Patricio took his time with goal kicks, the defence played it patiently between themselves and Quaresma, Joao Moutinho and Andre Gomes came on in midfield to provide some extra energy and legs in the closing stages. You could tell that as Land of my Fathers rang out around the Park Olympique (Lyon), the Welsh fans were saying their last goodbyes to a ground-breaking tournament and a great month for them, and justified they were to do it too. They had been outstanding, but they fell at a hurdle just too unprecedented and high-stake for even Gareth Bale to pass.
Portugal deserved their place in the final for their superiority up front and at the back, in the end securing a comfortable win with the help, especially, of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. Wales may be despondent for now, but they can take a lot of heart from what has been a truly magical month for them, with outstanding performances across the park, proving they aren’t just the one-man team a lot of people thought they were before. Let’s not forget their fans either; they were one of the highlights of the tournament for us all, never stopping their chants, their drinking or their social attitude for anyone.
Team of the Day
Portugal were close to their best today, actually trying to get shots on target in the face of Welsh defiance in the first half, and providing entertainment by continuing their positive attitude and sticking to their naturally creative roots in the second 45 minutes. They were solid at the back too, Patricio gobbling up all the chances that came to him as Jose Fonte and Bruno Alves put in a surprisingly solid performance as a partnership, silencing Robson-Kanu and later Vokes and Church by remaining calm in possession, and composed when tracking back. They put in a performance that will certainly inspire the nation for the final, putting them in with at least a fair shout against either France or Germany.
Player of the Day
What more can I say, of course it was Cristiano Ronaldo! A goal and an assists, you can’t argue with figures like that, the type which win games in a matter of moments. That is what his calibre of player does, changes games for the better through split-second decisions, and he proved that he deserves to be in the category of top 3 players in the world right now with his performance tonight. That’s without mentioning his desire to keep tracking back and organising his side as captain, providing a shoulder to lean on and trust to perform when others need the confidence. He may be accused of being selfish and arrogant in some games, but there is no doubting his ability to captain his country, leading by example in a pretty ordinary side which would have little without his name in it, but would still be a tight unit, just without a leader.
Goal of the Day
While I thought Nani’s slide took great instinct and composure to finish, Ronaldo’s header was a sight to behold from the stands and television screens across the world, as he thumped it in with ease for a player of his talent. The short corner was well-planned and carried out, reaching its target with precision, leaving the captain with only the finish to provide, which we all knew he could do with his eyes closed.
Shock of the Day
Mark Bowen’s (who’s he?) commentary for ITV tonight was a crime to the name of all good sports broadcasters in history. His dreary, zombie-like tones made me want to punch him just as much as I would like to with Coleman, as well as rip my ears off before I could hear him respond. Add to this the fact he only spoke about Wales for the entire 90 minutes, and Bowen safely raced into the pole position for worst commentator in my living memory. He may be a former Welsh international and current Stoke City assistant manager, but his qualifications as a coach should never have led to anything as painful as this to our ears. At least ITV have found someone who could form a double-act, or maybe have a bore-off, with James Milner now!
The way Mark Pougatch and his all-British, all-dreary (barring Roy Keane for both) panel just passed off Portugal as Ronaldo and no-one else after the full time whistle was a disgrace, just demonstrating how ignorant and unworthy of their wage they are. These are the guys whose opinions are supposed to matter? They might as well go and get a group of fans from the pub down the road to replace them if that is their standard of analysis. Who do they think they are?
Day Rating: 7/10
I’m Looking Forward to…
A fantastic looking prospect of a match-up tomorrow, pre-tournament bookies favourites and hosts France coming up in a clash of the titans with World champions and current favourites Germany in Marseille. This is a match worthy of a final, with billing and hype equivalent of a World Cup decider, with billions of viewers and fans all ready to tune in to watch some momentous, history-defining football. It should be a top, top match tomorrow.
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!