Despite a string of below-par performances which have seen the “Seleção” fail to win any of their matches during normal time, Portugal will face Wales in tomorrow’s (Wednesday) first semi-final of the European football championships.
Manager Fernando Santos’ men reached the last-four stage of the competition following their 5-3 penalty shoot-out success over Poland, the match having been tied at one a piece after 90 minutes.
Robert Lewandowski’s shock opener shortly after kick-off galvanized Portugal and newcomer Renato Sanches found the equaliser with a deflected effort just past the half-hour mark. The game deteriorated thereafter although the otherwise largely anonymous Cristiano Ronaldo missed two scoring opportunities he might have put away with his eyes closed wearing a Real Madrid jersey. However 120 minutes later, his opening spot kick did initiate ultimate victory and Portugal now have a great chance of reaching Sunday’s final in Paris.
In their way stands the surprise team of the tournament, Wales. Chris Coleman’s troops have not looked back since their group stage defeat by England, and improved on their scrappy 1-0 last 16 win over Northern Ireland by knocking out much-fancied Belgium in sensational style.
A 13th-minute Radja Nainggolan 40-yard screamer appeared to herald the end of Welsh hopes, but a great collective effort reminiscent of Leicester’s giant-killing feats in the English Premier League last season saw goals from Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes turn the game on its head.
Unfortunately, stand-out players Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies will miss out on tomorrow’s clash due to suspension while Portugal have to make do without William Carvalho and have injury doubts about Pepe – that leaves many fans in eager anticipation of what is billed as the clash of the ‘Galácticos’ – Madrid teammates Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Last but not least, Thursday’s semi-final has France squaring up to Germany. The hosts finally ended the Icelandic fairytale with a thumping 5-2 quarter-final win and will feel confident of overcoming their somewhat fragile-looking opponents.
Although the reigning World Champions always looked in charge during their quarter-final clash with Italy and took a deserved second-half lead through Mesut Özil, a comfortable-looking win then turned into a cliff-hanger after Jérôme Boateng inexplicably handled in the area gifting Italy a spot-kick equaliser.
No more goals followed until the end of extra time resulting in another penalty shoot-out – an at-times farcical sequence of attempts featuring at least four bad misses finally culminated in Germany emerging the 6-5 ‘winners’.
To make matters worse, the Mannschaft’s only recognised centre forward, Mario Gomez, and influential midfielder Sami Khedira both ended their tournaments with serious injury. In addition, regular starter Mats Hummels is suspended, Bastian Schweinsteiger is struggling with a knee problem and normally prolific attacking midfielder Thomas Muller – 32 goals in all competitions this season – appears to have trouble hitting a barn door at the moment.
All facts considered, we should see a France-Portugal final on Sunday- but then it’s a funny old game, as they say!
By SKIP BANDELE