We’re finally getting down to the nitty-gritty of the European Championships. The first semifinal of the tournament took place Wednesday night in Lyon, and it pitted two of the tournament’s “underdogs” against each other. In one corner, you had a Portuguese team that has been far from inspiring this tournament, but nonetheless they still had Cristiano Ronaldo leading them out onto the pitch. One the other side, stood a Welsh team that had defied all odds in their first ever European Championship performance, and were being led by Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate Gareth Bale. The media worked this matchup to be the ultimate battle of Bale v. Ronaldo, but they sometimes forget that there are 20 other players on the pitch.
After a pitch invader photobombed the Portuguese pre-match photograph (much to the entertainment of Ronaldo) the match kicked off. Portugal, who were wearing their sea foam green away jerseys even though they were technically the hosts, started off on the front foot with Ronaldo and Joao Mario both pressing the Welsh backline, with the latter barely glancing his low effort wide of the post.
The Welsh quickly got over the slow start and started to test Portugal’s defense about 20 minutes into the match. All of their chances came from the feet of Bale. The first saw the former Tottenham winger get free on a corner kick before smashing his shot wide of the frame. Bale continued to try and spark Wales’ attack with a pass to Andy King missing by a matter of inches, and a powerful drive that stung the hands of Rui Patricio.
As the half wore on, Portugal began to slow down the pace of play in an attempt to stop the Welsh attack that was beginning to click, and it worked. The last chance of the half fell to Ronaldo in the 44th minute, but CR7 couldn’t keep his headed effort on target and the sides went into the break deadlocked at 0-0. Would this be yet another 90 minutes of complacency from the Portuguese?
Apparently not. Just five minutes into the second half, Portugal grabbed the lead. A cross from Raphael Guerreiro following a corner kick found its way into the danger area of the Welsh penalty area. Ronaldo leapt above his defender and delivered a picture perfect header into the back of the net. This was Ronaldo’s ninth career goal in a European Championship which equalized Michel Platini’s record for the most in history, and it also gave Portugal a one-goal lead.
Portugal weren’t satisfied with their lead and promptly doubled it three minutes later. Once again, Ronaldo played a pivotal role in the play when his lackluster shot was turned in by his former Manchester United teammate Nani. While not the prettiest of goals, Nani’s strike put his nation two goals to the good and seemingly shocked the Welsh squad.
In the 65th minute, Joao Mario could have sealed the deal and booked Portugal’s ticket to the finals. After Nani’s initial long distance shot was poorly handled by Wayne Hennessey, Mario blazed the ensuing rebound wide of the net. Would this missed chance come back to bite Portugal in the final 25 minutes?
Other than an optimistic long drive effort from Gareth Bale in the 75th minute, the Welsh just couldn’t find a way to break down Portugal’s staunch defense. Shortly after Bale’s drive, Danilo came within inches of putting the dagger in Wales’ coffin when his shot broke through Hennessey, but didn’t have enough power to sneak across the goal line.
In the end, it didn’t matter as Portugal managed to see out the final stages of the match to secure a 2-0 victory and a ticket to their first tournament final in 12 years. A friendly postgame exchange between Bale and Ronaldo capped off the night and showed just how far the Welsh have come in the world of European football. Up next for Portugal is a monstrous challenge against either France or Germany.