Cristiano Ronaldo ends Wales fairytale to put Portugal in Euro 2016 final
Home team scorers Cristiano Ronaldo 50 Luis Nani 53
The Wales defence can only watch as Cristiano Ronaldo heads in the opening goal of the Euro 2016 semi-final for Portugal.
Gareth Bale had made the point that Wales’s historic run to the Euro 2016 semi-final had somehow not felt real. “In a way, it doesn’t,” he said, earlier in the week. The craziness had been on the outside. They were insulated inside their bubble.
This was the night when it popped; when the brutal reality intervened. And when Cristiano Ronaldo decided that it was time he made a grand statement at this championship. There had been the fear among the Wales support that, after some indifferent performances, Ronaldo was surely due to step up. He scored the opening goal with a punishing header and set up the second for Nani. Point made.
Portugal have known plenty of pain in major semi-finals; they had previously lost five of their six across this tournament and the World Cup. But it belonged to Wales here. Despite Bale’s non-stop endeavours, they struggled sorely to create too much of clear-cut note. The suspended midfielder, Aaron Ramsey, was missed.
The talk in the build-up had been about the Wales story, and of how Denmark and Greece had defied the odds to lift this trophy. After a scrappy first half, Ronaldo made sure that the established order prevailed. It was him and his team-mates who could dream of a first international title. At least, there could be no Welsh regrets. They were well beaten.
Wales had dared to dream. They were not supposed to beat Belgium – the No2-ranked team in the world – but the quarter-final victory, and the manner of it, had glided their status. Fernando Santos, the Portugal manager, had insisted that Wales ought to be considered as the favourites which, a few years back, would have had men in white coats rushing towards him.
Wales’s journey under Chris Coleman has been a story for the ages but they had not wanted it to end. The challenge was to blot out the frenzy around them, particularly back at home, and to leave everything on the pitch. Nobody had wanted them to die wondering.
There was an attritional tone at the outset – despite flashes of quick-footed skill – and, unsurprisingly, Ronaldo and Bale were to the fore. The Portugal captain was angered at the start when Ashley Williams seemed to foul him but there was no whistle. Ronaldo appeared to face an internal battle with his emotions; how he wanted to advance in order to set up a shot at atonement for his team’s defeat at the Euro 2004 final.
He grew angrier after one of the first-half’s few flashpoints in the 10th minute. Ronaldo had set out to target James Collins, who came into the Wales defence for the suspended Ben Davies and, when Cedric crossed, he looked to have eked a yard of space from him. Out came Collins’s arm and he hooked it around Ronaldo, who could not make the header and he went to ground. It was risky stuff from Collins and yet an early indicator that he would carry the physical fight to his opponent.
Portugal’s comfort on the ball was pronounced – João Mario is a beautifully balanced player – and they tried to make the game; to press onto the front foot. Ronaldo was ever keen to pop the ball off and bomb into the area for the cross.
Euro 2016 semi-final player ratings: Portugal 2-0 Wales Read more Bale provided Wales’s best bits before the interval with a clutch of driving runs. He imposed himself and it served to spread confidence in his team-mates. He accelerated away from José Fonte to win a corner – from it, he hooked a shot well wide – and he blasted away from Ronaldo and Raphaël Guerreiro to cross low on 21 minutes. Rui Patrício collected.
Bale’s most exhilarating moment was when he skipped away from Danilo’s slide challenge and lengthened his stride. Suddenly, there was space and the counter-attacking situation that his team had wanted. Bale dropped his shoulder, cut inside and low shot but it was straight at Patrício. It would be the only shot on target of the first half.
Wales had to bide their time. This was a test of their patience and focus. Their only other flicker before half-time came when Hal Robson-Kanu crossed dangerously and Andy King stooped to head. His effort flicked off Fonte and went behind.
Ronaldo’s aerial threat had been advertised and he made it count for the opening goal. His spring and athleticism laid the ground-work, following a short-corner routine and Guerreiro’s out-swinging delivery, before his power and timing made the difference. James Chester, his one-time Manchester United team-mate, was unable to deflect him from his purpose and the header fizzed past Wayne Hennessey.
Portugal’s streetwise edge was a theme. They had made it to this stage by being good enough, without truly hitting the heights but they know how to get the job done. There had been criticism. “Music to my ears,” Santos had said. The arch-pragmatist knows that only the result stands the test of time.
Portugal nagged away; hogging the ball, denying Wales space. They gasped for air. When Nani scored his goal, it felt as though the hope was extinguished. Ronaldo was at the heart of it. His low shot was aimed for the far corner and Hennessey was moving in that direction, when Nani slid in to divert into the middle of the net.
Bale continued to try his luck and he would work Patrício but it was Portugal who had the chances to extend their lead, with Ronaldo, João Mario, Fonte and Danilo all going close. The Welsh dream has died.