Exactly what happened at the heart of their defence in those three second-half minutes will be debated by Wales and their fans long after Euro 2016 is done and dusted but while it ended a great story, another began. This will be Portugal’s first final since 2004 when their golden generation faced a Greek crisis at home they couldn’t overcome.
Reduced to tears, Cristiano Ronaldo was 19 then. On Thursday (India time), he hand-held Portugal to the Euro 2016 final with a performance worthy of a man who has won three Ballon d’ Or titles. Barring those goals in the second half against Hungary, also in Lyon, that ensured Portugal would survive the group stages, Ronaldo hadn’t had a great tournament. By his standards, it wasn’t even an ordinary tournament.
After 36 games in the Spanish League and 12 in the Champions League, having scored 51 goals in all competitions for Real Madrid, Ronaldo, it was said, was tired. That every Portugal game seemed drabber than the last fuelled such a notion. They had failed to win a game in regulation time before this 2-0 win in the semifinal.
What a time, therefore, to set the record straight! From a 10th minute penalty he could have got, a 63rd minute free-kick from which he nearly scored, an 85th minute effort where he rounded the goalie but hit the side-netting to a 90th minute header he couldn’t keep on target, Ronaldo, with one goal and an assist, was Portugal’s heartbeat. That’s exactly how he wants it to be.
Portugal’s best chance of the first half came when Ronaldo released Joao Mario who could have passed to Nani moving in instead of going solo. They ended a scrappy first half with Ronaldo’s header going off target. And then between the 50th and the 53rd, minutes, the battle was lost and won.
Baring the arm around his neck that could have yielded a penalty, James Collins, putting in a shift because Ben Davies was suspended, had stood the Ronaldo test in the first half. But when Portugal took a corner-kick short and Raphael Guerreiro swung it in, Wales’ defence lost shape. Collins didn’t time his jump, in fact he didn’t jump at all, and it was left to Neil Taylor, the short wing back, to rein in Ronaldo after James Chester had failed to do that. Ronaldo soared and connected so powerfully that the header seemed like a shot into the top corner.
That helped him equal Michel Platini’s record of nine goals in the European championships finals, adding another feather to an already storied campaign now in its fourth and perhaps final edition. Ronaldo has scored in all of them and no one has played 20 games in the championship.
According to the football statistics website Opta, nine of Ronaldo’s 11 goals in major tournaments have come in the second half.
Three minutes later, Wales left Nani unmarked in their inner defence and the striker managed to deflect Ronaldo’s shot into the goal.
Wales never had the arsenal to keep Portugal at bay but till the goals, they had hung in there and, for a part in the first half, also matched their opponents. Gareth Bale couldn’t keep a well worked out corner-kick routine in the first half on target and had a solo effort on the break that ended with a shot to the goalie.
Like Ronaldo, he covered a lot of area and made only one touch in the opposition penalty area, according to Opta. Unlike his Real Madrid teammate, he couldn’t make the difference in the second half.
In 2006 after Portugal beat the Netherlands in an ill-tempered World Cup pre-quarterfinal in Nuremberg, Eusebio was seen doing a jig on the sidelines. Then too, Portugal exited in the semifinals, like they did in 1966 when Eusebio was in his pomp. Portugal didn’t win a major tournament in Eusebio’s lifetime but will that change on Monday?