Portugal have stalemated their way to the semi-finals of the European championship. If that sounds a little negative, it need not be because there is lurking in this Portuguese team the potential for flamboyance and clearly, where there is Cristiano Ronaldo, there is the possibility of more goals than they have managed in most of their outings in this competition.
They won their quarter-final on penalties against Poland, having come back from 1-0 down in only the second minute of the contest, when Robert Lewandowski, Poland’s captain, leading scorer in the qualifying phase, broke his duck in Euro 2016 itself.
The Portguese equaliser, from 18-year-old Renato Sanches, was quite a goal, but their conspicuous strength after that, once again was their defence. On a muggy night in Marseille, they tired Poland with strangulation at the back. Up front, Ronaldo had an off night.
He has compiled a few of those in France over the last three weeks, but he struck a successful first spot-kick when, at 1-1 after 120 minutes, spot-kicks decided the outcome. Portugal converted all five of theirs, poor Jakob Blaszczykowski saw his come back off the left hand of Rui Patricio.
Blaszczykowski has been Poland’s player of the tournament in many eyes; penalties are cruel. Switzerland can tell Poland all about that, and there will be a few Swiss, who were beaten on a shoot-out in the previous round, who will remember how ungraciously the Poles celebrated that win five days earlier.
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So Portugal stand 180 minutes from winning the European Championship. They have yet to be ahead after 90 minutes in any of the five games they have played in France. You might call that luck. It is austere but not that efficient. They looked whacked at the end of their second two-hour contest — they beat Croatia late in extra-time last Saturday — on the trot.
Their brightest moment, apart from the five impeccable spot-kicks had come two hours before Ricardo Quaresma converted their winning penalty. It was the Renato goal. The teenager came into the tournament having claimed one thing off Cristiano Ronaldo, and come the crisis of Portugal’s early setback, he was ready not to bow to the authority of his captain.
Sanches has undercut Ronaldo’s record of precociousness — Ronaldo had been the youngest Portuguese to appear at a European Championship when he took part in the opening match of Euro 2004 — by making his first appearance in this event at 18 years and 301 days old; and after half an hour of his first start of the competition, he paid no attention to Ronaldo, who was making towards the far post and gesturing for a pass there.
Renato, ball at his feet, glimpsed Ronaldo’s run, but saw Nani making a more enterprising move across the Polish defence. Renato, approaching the edge of the penalty area, slipped the ball to Nani.
Nani gave it him back, via a backheel, to the surprise of everybody, except, apparently the cool-headed Sanches: a touch with his right foot, a rocket with his left. He had chosen his spot superbly, powering a drive beyond the reach of Lukasz Fabianski’s left palm.
Everybody in the Portugal camp, talks of Renato’s fearlessness. “It doesn’t matter how old he is,” said Ricardo Carvalho, the defender, a colleague more than twice Renato’s age. “When he comes onto the pitch, he is a man, and he brings with him intensity.” Soon after he had scored, he was driving goalwards again, his surge snuffed out by Krzysztof Maczynski.
As recently as last November, Renato was playing in Portugal’s Under-19 league, for Benfica’s juniors. By the end of that month, having been promoted to the first-team squad he had made his Uefa Champions League debut and in April played impressively enough in the tight quarter-final of that competition against Bayern Munich that the Bundesliga holders made their bold move.
Benfica had taken the precaution of raising the young man’s buyout clause to a whopping €80 million (Dh326m). If he reaches all the targets sewed into his contract with them, Benfica might end up with a sum very close to that; the initial fee is €35m, hefty for a teenager with barely half a senior season under his belt.
Under his braids, he is an exciting footballer, industrious, brave and dynamic. Portugal needed that against a Poland who had been protecting their excellent start ably enough, although Ronaldo had claimed, with some justification that a push in his back by Michal Pazdan deserved a penalty.
The feeling that Ronaldo’s stardust was not going to be sprinkled, as it has not been for long periods in France, grew when, five minutes from the end of normal time, he miskicked at a good chance, facing up to Fabianski. He had already clouted a free-kick against the Polish defensive wall, wheezed an effort into the side-netting.
Extra-time brought more of the same, a Eliseu cross caught up between the feet of Ronaldo, not connecting smoothly with his instep. The shootout brought out the best in the superstar and the rising star. Ronaldo struck his penalty with purpose. Renato, unfazed, stepped up immediately afterwards with a very adult composure and hastened his country towards Euro 2016’s last four.
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