Euro 2012 has the first of its four semi-finalists, and, by dint of history, perhaps its most intriguing, upstart candidate to lift the trophy. Portugal, alone among the quartet of teams who will next week vie for a place in the Kiev final, have neither a European championship or a World Cup title to their names. There is a first time for everybody, the Portuguese will assure themselves, and a strong chance of making history when you have the continent’s most talented attacking footballer on your side.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s headed goal put Portugal en route to a meeting with Spain or France. He had needed to wait longer than he would have liked, or probably felt he deserved to, for his third goal of the tournament and for his team to establish the advantage they had threatened since midway through the opening period. Portugal, by ten minutes from full-time, when Ronaldo met Joao Moutinho’s centre, powering it downwards to beat Petr Cech, had taken control of the contest.
That it took them so long to make capital of that had been credit to the rigour of the Czech team defensively, to some sharp interceptions by Cech, and to some wayward, hasty finishing by one or two of Ronaldo’s colleagues. There remains such a distinction between his talents and those around him that the notion Portugal are excessively dependent on their megastar is hard to escape. He had hit the post twice before he struck the telling blow.
The Czechs certainly never forgot who would be the major threat. Ronaldo, was always their chief preoccupation. Ahead of the first Portuguese corner of the game, Petr Jiracek found himself reprimanded by Howard Webb, the referee for his jostling and man-handling of the Real Madrid player as the pair of them anticipated Miguel Veloso’s delivery. When Ronaldo later took possession 25 yards from goal, a swarm of red shirts surrounded him: If David Limbersky had not stopped him, Michal Kadlec was ready to do so; if he wriggled past Kadlec, Tomas Sivok would be there.
Cramped by the Czech fear of his threat, Ronaldo had to fashion his half-chances resourcefully. He tried an overhead volley, steered well to the left of Cech’s goal and just before the interval, after a wonderful piece of control to bring down a high ball, via his chest and his instep, he turned a shot against Cech’s post.
Portugal had needed patience even to come that close, after a slow start as they felt their way towards a position of domination. The Czechs had actually hit a comfortable stride first, and were Milan Baros a yard swifter, as he was as a younger man, he might have toed in Vladimir Darida’s cross after 17 minutes. Jiracek was not ready to be cowed, either, willing to run at both Portugal full-backs even when his legs were tiring late in the game.
Ronaldo would brush the base of Cech’s post a second time just after the break, with a direct free-kick. Hugo Almeida, on for the injured Helder Postiga, had already nodded a Meireles cross wide, a poor execution given the tall striker had been unhindered by Czech defenders. Ronaldo, better marshalled by Theo Gebre Selassie as he chased Meireles’s pass, lobbed a shot well off target; Cech parried clear a drive from Nani and tipped a Moutinho drive over the bar.
By the time the tie was an hour old, the Czech Republic players needed some relief. Vaclav Pilar’s spirited left-wing surge roused their supporters, who were represented in good numbers in the Polish capital. Milan Baros’s speculative and wild effort from long-range seemed less inspiring.
Those efforts marked mere pauses to the Portuguese pressure. Ronaldo’s frustration at his team’s failure to capitalise on their territorial superior became explicit when he raised his arms to the sky having seen Meireles blaze an effort over. Nani would be nearer his intended target with a chip.
Ronaldo was entitled to imagine he might have finished more accurately than any colleague. But his opportunities to prove it would be limited by the smothering attentions of vigilant Czechs. Once they allowed him the space to seek out Moutinho’s cross, though, the predator in him snarled. Ambition has been awakened in the Portugal skipper, too, and that will be feared by the Spaniards or the French.
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