Portugal edge Netherlands to win maiden Nations League
Cristiano Ronaldo did not have to be at his best as Gonçalo Guedes scored the winner
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with the trophy after winning the Uefa Nations League final. Photograph: EPA
Portugal 1 Netherlands 0
At the final whistle the celebrations from Cristiano Ronaldo were quite restrained compared to the other occasions when he has added another trophy to his personal collection. Two arms raised, but nothing too elaborate. Ronaldo did not even mark the moment by peeling off his top to remind us of the contours of his six-pack. Which was highly unlike him but a reflection, perhaps, that the Nations League is still finding its way.
At the same time, Ronaldo and his Portugal team-mates can still reflect on another highly satisfying achievement to win the inaugural competition following their success at Euro 2016. Gonçalo Guedes, a 22-year-old winger for Valencia, scored the decisive goal and, yet again, it was difficult not to marvel at the country’s ability to produce so many gifted footballers.
Ronaldo, the greatest of them all, did not even have to reach his most exhilarating heights but, ultimately, all that stuff about whether he could be the first man to dribble past Virgil van Dijk seemed like a sub-plot to the real story anyway. That story was a deserved Portugal victory on a night when the Netherlands struggled for any real momentum.
Not that this was purely a Portuguese-Dutch occasion judging by the number of St George’s flags present bearing the names of various English market towns. Indeed, it was very clear that many of the tickets had been bought in advance by England supporters who had taken the calculated gamble their team might be involved.
They were also determined to be heard – “shall we sing for you” being their way of introduction – and clearly felt it was the kind of occasion that warranted booing Van Dijk, in common with Thursday’s defeat for England in Guimãraes. Though, if nothing else, at least there was no booing this time of the Dutch national anthem. Or failed MEP candidates punching anyone from behind.
The three sets of supporters did not have a great deal to get excited about during the opening exchanges. The first Mexican wave started to snake around the stadium before the half-hour mark and it is never promising when the crowd has to make its own entertainment, especially that early into a match.
Not that it was a stinker, by any means. It was just mildly disappointing that neither team moved the ball with real speed or purpose until the last 15 minutes of the first half, when Portugal started to look increasingly dangerous.
Those were the moments when Bernardo Silva came alive, operating on the right-hand side of the attack and playing with the kind of soft-touch authority that comes from having been such a prodigious performer in Manchester City’s successful title defence.
Ronaldo’s nutmeg on Frenkie de Jong felt like the football equivalent of patting his opponent on the head, missing only the famous CR7 wink, and Guedes looked eager to justify his selection ahead of João Félix, Benfica’s 19-year-old forward, who might be attracting the attention of Europe’s elite clubs but had to settle for a place on the bench.
Ronaldo and Silva like to start wide, stretching the play, and Portugal had enough of the ball in encouraging positions to think they should probably have created some better scoring chances during that part of the match.
When the second half got under way it was, rather confusingly, to a backdrop of Rule Britannia and the announcement that Ryan Babel was going off, meaning the introduction of Quincy Promes, one of the players who made the most of England’s extra-time collapse in the semi-final. It had been a prosaic opening 45 minutes from the Dutch, playing in all-turquoise rather than the usual Oranje, and it was easy to assume Ronald Koeman wanted to see more from his team in an attacking sense.
Their tempo had been too slow. Something had to change, and around the hour-mark Koeman made another attacking substitution by taking off Steven Bergwijn, who had just made a brilliant tackle to stop Guedes on a quick breakaway, and bringing on Donny van de Beek, one of the key players for Ajax in their run to the Champions League semi-finals.
The problem for the Dutch was that within seconds of Van de Beek’s arrival they had gone behind. Bernardo Silva was prominently involved in the goal and, as always, acutely aware of the players around him.
Another footballer might have tried a shot in his position, running through the left-hand channel into the penalty area. Silva shaped as if that was his intention, too. But it was a deception and instead he played a reverse pass into the path of Guedes, who was following up in a more central position.
He had Ronaldo to his right but decided to have a go himself and struck the ball powerfully enough for it to find the bottom corner of the net, even though the goalkeeper, Jasper Cillesen, had reached out a hand to get to the shot.
The onslaught that might have been expected from the Netherlands late on never really materialised and Portugal held out with relative comfort.