One small step for Cristiano Ronaldo; one giant leap for the nation of Portugal. The three-time Ballon d’Or winner soared through the air and slammed home the header that put Portugal on the path to Paris.
In an instant he shattered all those doubts – the ones about him being unable to decisively influence matches, the ones about Portugal being unable to win a game in normal time. This was the match he was waiting for.
It was billed as a battle of two Galacticos – Ronaldo versus his Real Madrid team-mate Gareth Bale – and there’s no question who came out on top. Not only did Ronaldo score the goal which went through Welsh hearts like a dagger but he also provided the quick-fire assist for Nani which put this semi-final out of reach once and for all. Bale was muted, the odd cross or pot shot aside.
Wales’s journey to the semi-final stage has been no fairy tale. They are a good team, expertly drilled, and no magic dust carried them here. Their progress was logical. To be in with a chance of meeting France or Germany in the final, though, they needed Ronaldo to remain tame. And to be fair, to this point, he had not had a great individual tournament.
Sure, there were two goals against Hungary in the group stage. Those goals came at the expense of team unity, though, as Portugal surrendered three at the other end. The knockouts passed with scarcely a flicker from him. He was praised for his dedication to the cause and his work for the team. These are not items of praise normally associated with Cristiano Ronaldo. Those are words for forwards who don’t score. Ronaldo scores – a lot. This eruption was due.
Portugal playing solidly and Ronaldo rising to the occasion – tonight it all came together in unison. A tight first half gave way to a dominant opening to the second period in which Ronaldo took charge. Portugal did to Wales what Belgium couldn’t – a quick second goal to nullify their chances of getting back into the match.
Up to that point Ronaldo again struggled. He was made to eat the grass after a challenge by Ashley Williams. His half-hearted scissor kick drew jeers from the Welsh fans. A good headed chance was passed up. His off-night didn’t last though. We had become accustomed to Portugal playing stand-offish football and Ronaldo not scoring. It all changed here. The plan worked.
Outside the fatherland, Portugal will no doubt remain unloved. Fernando Santos, their coach, said criticism over his team’s style of play was “music to his ears” in the pre-match press conference. A team with as much individual talent as this one – Ronaldo, Nani, Renato Sanches, Joao Mario and more – could well play a style that was prettier on the eye. But it’s better to be here and playing ugly than being at home and playing prettily.
They have played the knockout stage to perfection. Santos has been forced now to use all outfield members of his squad due to injuries and suspensions. If they do win the gold medals, every one of them will be deserving of one. Pepe, his most reliable defender, could not play here due to a thigh injury. William Carvalho was banned. That just about evened out the Welsh losses of Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies.
Santos has got his players all singing from the same hymn sheet so the identity of the starters barely matters. That is, though, until you get to the striking positions. Nani’s form has meant Ronaldo’s lean patch has not been too detrimental. Tonight he took over.
Ronaldo equalled Michel Platini’s all-time European Championship scoring record. He had already beaten Luis Figo’s Portugal caps record. He also became the first man to score in four Euro finals tournaments. The first one was way back in 2004, when team-mate Renato Sanches had not yet turned seven.
He is a different player these days; the step-overs are slower, he needs more help from his team-mates to put him in scoring positions. Tonight, though, was a reminder of what he can do when he gets the service. The leap, the power, the goal. All capped off with that familiar celebration.
Ronaldo is finally blossoming at Euro 2016 and there would be few backing against him leading his country to a first-ever senior title.