So, we have had our twenty-four hour break and it is on to the quarter-finals – the business end, if you will – of the 2012 European Championships. And if there is one player above all others who looks as if he may be the one that is talked about in hushed tones when this tournament is talked about in years to come, it is likely that it will be the moustache-twirling pantomime villain of European football, Cristiano Ronaldo. After eighty minutes of knocking insistently at Petr Cech’s goal, he summoned forth a glorious diving header to win this game to send Portugal through to the semi-finals of the competition.
If the Czech Republic had found themselves a trifle bemused to find themselves in the quarter-finals of the competition after their opening thrashing at the hands of Russia, though, they didn’t demonstrate it over the first thirty-five minutes of this match. They put in a strong performance in the opening stages of the match, albeit without creating very much by way of goalscoring opportunities, and it looked as if they might even have found a way to snuff Cristiano Ronaldo out, albeit by parking five or six of their players in a circle around him and refusing to move, but with ten minutes to play of the first half an injury to the surprisingly-still-only-twenty-seven-years-old Helder Postiga, who pulled up away from the ball with what looked very much a twanged hamstring, saw the introduction of substitute Hugo Almeida and this seemed to open previously stodgy midfield a little, as if the Czech game-plan had built on the entire basis of the Portguese starting eleven and no-one else.
In stoppage-time at the end of the first half, Ronaldo collected a pass from Raul Meireles on his chest, dragged the ball past his marker and fired a low shot which thudded out off the base of Cech’s left-hand post. It was a sign of things to come. Less than thirty seconds into the second half, Meireles crossed from the left and Almeida headed over from eight yards out. As the second half progressed, Portugal imposed more and more, and the main orchestrator of this was, of course Ronaldo. Two minutes after Almeida’s miss, Ronaldo fired in a free-kick that clipped the outside of the post, and from hereon in the match became something of a duel between Ronaldo and Cech, with Ronaldo employing Meireles as a wing-man and a blanket of sporadically effective red shirts operating as a sporadically successful shield for the goalkeeper.
With eleven minutes to play, however, his moment finally came. Moutinho collected the ball on the right, span inside and crossed a perfect ball into the penalty area for Ronaldo to arrive with a diving header that flew past Cech and into the roof of the goal. The Czech Republic, who we might easily have believed were doing little more than merely trying to run the clock down into extra-time and beyond, and when it was required for them to step up their pace they were unable to find a way through the Portuguese defence. They managed to win a corner kick in stoppage time at the end of the game – for which Cech, perhaps seeking to avenge the header that got past him, arrived unexpectedly in the opposing penalty area – but even this kick was wildly over-hit, ending their challenge in this tournament with one mishit swipe.
Perhaps the Czech Republic were a little surprised to reach this stage of the tournament in the first place. The defended effectively for long periods and might consider themselves a touch unfortunate to get to ten minutes from the end of the match before conceding, but it would take a hard heart to claim that this Portugal team, which mixed its defensive responsibility with pleasing flashes of elan and arrogance when pushing into attacking positions, didn’t deserve to win this match. Above all else, this was Cristiano Ronaldo’s evening. This is a player that has stood accused in the past of failing to fully turn up for the more difficult matches at international tournament, but this evening he reinforced the growing perception that 2012 might be the year in which he makes a tournament his very own.
Portugals next test, however, may prove to be their toughest of all. Even if we allow ourselves to get swept along with the idea that Spain and France might not so far have lived up to the pre-tournament expectations that were heaped upon them, there can be little doubting that either of these two teams would provide a considerably greater challenge to any team than tonights Czech Republic side would. Yet it is difficult not to start to consider that there is one man that is already treating this tournament as his destiny and has the raw, jaw-dropping talent to be able to make it so. It will be a test of Ronaldos brilliance if he find a way to unpick either the Spanish or French defences in the semi-final. We might well stop to consider that either of these two teams will have earned their place in the final should they be able to keep him under control for ninety minutes.
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