Portugal’s Euro 2016 campaign has been a tedious one. With three draws in the group stages, a late winner in the dying minutes of extra time of their last-16 encounter and a 5-3 penalty shootout on Thursday night, they have scraped their way into the semi-finals without winning a single match in regulation time. Over five matches, Cristiano Ronaldo’s team have enjoyed the lead for a mere 22 minutes and yet contrived a place in the final four.
In the quarter-finals against Poland, the Selecção were on the back foot within 120 seconds as captain Robert Lewandowski broke his tournament duck with a lethal finish. Though the early goal left Portugal shell-shocked, they soon found their footing and levelled in the 33rd minute, thanks to wonder kid Renato Sanches. The 28-year-old’s powerful strike took a slight deflection off Grzegorz Krychowiak before beating Lukasz Fabianski. But it was the wonderful way in which Sanches created the goal – laying it with his right foot and smashing it in with his right – that justified his place in the starting XI and the €35 million price tag.
Sanches became the third-youngest player to score at the European Championship, picking up his second Man of the Match award at the tournament. Replacing an injured Andre Gomes in the midfield, the box-to-box midfielder brought some much-needed energy and strength in the middle. Later in the shootout, his penalty into the top corner was hit with the swagger of a man who knows he belongs on the big stage.
"For the penalties, the coach asked who wanted to shoot. Cristiano was first and I said I would be second. The coach had faith in me, and I was confident enough to ask to shoot. I was just thinking about scoring, I was very cool, very collected, did what I always do and picked a side and put it in there," he said after the match, reflecting a self-belief that matches the hype around him.
While Sanches provided the incisive moment in front of goal, centre back Pepe was the anchor that held the Portuguese defence. The Real Madrid player let nothing past him, out-muscling and intercepting every Polish player that attempted to cross him. Looking beyond the theatrics that generally accompany his playing performance, Pepe has always been a good defender and this was yet another match where he proved his worth for the national team. He was unbeatable in the air and fast on the ground, standing out as the best player on the field.
Along with Pepe, defender Cedric too underlined his importance on the right flank for Portugal. It was his misjudged blunder that led to the Polish opening goal but he recovered well as the match progressed. His crucial runs down the wing and dangerous crosses into the box kept his opposite numbers on their feet and provided attacking options for Portugal. He almost redeemed himself by scoring from 30 yards, with his scorching strike whizzing just inches wide off the part.
The solid Portuguese defence kept Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik isolated for the majority of the 120 minutes, to the point where the Polish captain seemed absent on the field in the cagey second half.
Goalkeeper Rui Patricio emerged as the hero in the penalty shootout, diving full length to his left to save Jakub Blaszczykowski’s strike from the spot as all five Portuguese players converted theirs.
While his team rallied and worked tirelessly, leading man Ronaldo suffered a poor game. He played as an out-and-out target man in the quarter-final, but failed to find the net despite being presented with great opportunities to score. Thrice in the match, he was in brilliant positions in front of goal but ended up mistiming, air-kicking and muffing his chances. Despite his profligate night, and knowing well that he had already missed a penalty earlier in the tournament, the captain still stood up to go first in the shootout. Any other player would have been bogged down by the 120 minutes that he had just played –but not Ronaldo. Four years ago, he was selected to go fifth against Spain in the semi-finals and they lost before it came down to him. This time, he made sure there would be no repeat.
Ronaldo has blown hot and cold in France but has still displayed character and perseverance. On a night where he failed to shine, the supporting cast around him carried the team through. The match against Poland showed that Portugal are more than just Ronaldo, and have enough talent and experience in the rest of the side as well. While Sanches firmly established himself as the future of Portuguese football, veteran Pepe made sure it was only his football that was the one of the talking points of the match.
“It's crucial at this stage to rotate the players. I want them to be responsible but also free to enjoy the game. They have a real unity about them. Of course they make mistakes - and so do I - but our ace in the pack is that they're so determined to power through games,” coach Fernando Santos said post match. Portugal have looked unconvincing, lacked an edge in front of goal and frustrated fans with their dour performances, but they have so far somehow managed to come through. They haven’t won a match in 90 minutes but they kept their nerves when they most need to. They are, deservedly, into the semi-finals of Euro 2016.