Emmet Malone: All eyes on Bale and Ronaldo as history calls
Wales-Portugal semi-final at Euro 2016 should be about more than the superstars
For those who like a good showdown story, the first semi-final could scarcely have been better set up had it involved two guys standing with Smith & Wessons at opposite ends of one of those wild-west main streets.
That, in any case, is how it is being portrayed in large swathes of the media with the world, it seems, being encouraged to tune in for the shootout between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. Make your own call on who’s wearing the white hat.
Ronaldo is obviously more gripped by his rivalry with Lionel Messi, who routinely eclipses him in lists of the world’s best players. So propelling this Portugal side to a major title after being around for so many failed attempts would make for another credit on the Madrid star’s side of the ledger. There is a fair bit of work to be done still, though, for whichever team wins in Lyon is likely to start Sunday’s final at the Stade de France with the tag of “underdog” attached.
They have, however been that close before, many times, and generally it is the point when they come up short, although the semi-final defeats in 2000 and in the World Cup in 2006 or 2012 cannot have been as painful as their defeat on home soil in 2004. That was with a generally much more talented side than the one beaten by Greece in the final due to the lack of a decent striker.
Here, with Ronaldo generally occupying that position, it is tempting to suggest they have little else by way of world-class talent. They have not been impressive at all on the way to the last four even if, after finishing third in their group to Hungary and Iceland, sides with the potential to beat them such as Croatia and Poland didn’t require them to be impressive when it mattered.
Wales, on the other hand, have topped a group that included England, Slovakia and Russia then, most notably, come from behind to beat Belgium. They have excelled at times and yet somehow, one senses, they might settle deep down for losing out at this stage as long as they made a better fist of this semi-final than Iceland did of their quarter.
This time out Ben Davies and Aaron Ramsey will, like Portugal’s William Carvalho, be absent through suspension and the Arsenal star, another who has been critical to Wales’s ability to turn defence into attack, likely to be particularly missed. Andy King is likely to come in for him with Chris Gunter moving into the back three and Jazz Richards replacing him at wing back.
King, of course, has just won a Premier League title with Leicester but generally speaking, these are not options that the games more affluent club’s would pay a ransom for. Still, Coleman has done well so far and while employing a system that, on the face of it, must seem quite alien to many of his players. He acknowledged this at his pre-match press conference where he tipped his hat to the approach and attitude of the great Italian teams.
Wales are some way off them but then Portugal lack real quality too and a great deal here will come down to who performs on the night.
Fernando Santos’s men may well, like the Belgians, have the better of things in open play but Coleman’s men possess quite a counter-punch and they might just, in their way, show the greater ambition, given that they really are beyond having much to lose at a stage when they have comfortably exceeded any expectations.
The Welsh coach, as it happens, is not as reluctant as many of his, or Portugal’s, players to acknowledge the Bale versus Ronaldo side to the game. “In situations like this,” he says, “you look for great pieces of play from great players. They’re got one of them and we’ve got one so it will be interesting tomorrow.”
It certainly should be.