Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo end Wales’s Euro 2016 dream
Quickfire goals from Portuguese captain and Nani bring Welsh fairytale to abrupt finish
Portugal’s almost endless run of knock-out stage defeats doesn’t qualify for them for perennial bridesmaid status, so there will be relief around their camp that for the first time since they contrived to lose the final of this tournament on home soil in 2004 they will at least be up front and centre when the gold is up for grabs on Sunday evening.
Inevitably, it is Ronaldo, with a goal and assist, who will get the credit for getting Portugal to the Stade de France, not least from himself one suspects, but as with the French in a couple of their most recent games, they were fortunate here to meet an underdog whose day of reckoning had come.
Gareth Bale did his level best to haul Chris Coleman’s side over another hurdle but it was nowhere close to good enough as those around him ran out of steam and the absence of players, most obviously Aaron Ramsey, whose yellow cards in previous games had been a part of the price of getting this far, was acutely felt.
It was more Ireland against France than Iceland, to be fair, with the Welsh looking to be very much in it over the course of a first half in which both sides enjoyed a lot of space in midfield but neither seemed capable of generating much by way of clear cut chances around the opposition area.
Essentially, though, the game was decided by a three minute spell that started five into the second period with Ronaldo sending James Chester spinning as he rose to head home a Raphael Guerreiro cross after Joao Mario corner had been taken short. The shock hadn’t worn off, it seemed, when another set piece was only partially cleared and Ronaldo lined up a long range shot that didn’t seem to pose too much danger until Nani stuck a hopeful leg out and turned it past Wayne Hennessey.
There was plenty of time for the Welsh to save themselves but for all their undoubted commitment they never really once suggested that they possessed the wherewithal.
It was a disappointing way for their time at the tournament to end although clearly they can be immensely proud after having gotten this far and their central figure leaves with his own reputation further enhanced.
The stats coming into this semi-final provided a half decent basis for arguing Bale had been eclipsing his Real Madrid team mate over the course of tournament so far but here there was really no contest: that goal and assist for Ronaldo amounted to game, set and match to the him and the Portuguese.
It was a pity too for the neutral the Portuguese got their second goal so quickly because as a contest it all still seemed to have some potential until then. Certainly it had looked at the outset as if both sides wanted to win and felt that they could even if they weren’t quite sure just how far they should back their hunch.
But from start to finish it was Portugal who worked their way up the pitch a little more smartly and generally broke with a bit more menace, although they rarely made Hennessey do much and the early attempts to find Ronaldo with high balls into the box must have seemed like a gift from God to James Collins.
Bale, meanwhile, had much more of a roving role with the 26 year-old clearly happier, or more free, to drop deep and start his side’s attacks from far inside his own half. Notionally, it made marking him a little less high stakes but his extraordinary change of pace, that sudden acceleration from ambling to flat out, repeatedly caught the opposition off their guard and two of the team’s best chances early on came from such runs with the midfielder skipping past Portuguese bodies almost as if they weren’t there before crossing for Andy King at the near post on one occasion then shooting straight at Rui Patricio on the other.
He did his best late on to maintain that sort of momentum but, hampered by the lack of quality on their bench and the persistent threat that they would be caught on the break, the Welsh never seriously looked likely to get back into it and so they became the latest side to leave France after a long, lingering farewell to their still admiring fans in the corner of a stadium.
Portugal get to go all the way to Paris with either Germany or the hosts awaiting on Sunday. Whoever wins the semi in Marseille will start against them as fairly firm favourites in the decider but there were glimpses of quality here from Joao Mario Ranato Sanches and, particularly, Adrien Silva.
And yet, everyone knows, their chances will again come down to one man.
Portugal: Rui Patricio; Cedric, Fonte, Bruno Alves, Guerreiro; Danilo; Joao Mario, Renato Sanches (Gomes, 74 mins), Adrien Silva (Moutinho, 79 mins); Nani (Quaresma, 87 mins), Ronaldo.
Wales: Hennessey, Gunter, Collins (J Williams, 66 mins), A Williams, Chester, Taylor; King, Ledley (Vokes, 58 mins), Allan; Bale; Robsom-Kanu (Church, 63 mins).
Referee: J Eriksson (Sweden).