Portugal has reached in the semifinal of Euro 2016 without winning a single match inside 90 minutes in France. The latest success, after a 1-1 draw, was a 5-3 win on penalties after a dramatic shootout against Poland, one that allows Portugal to exorcise some of its recent losses settled by the spot 12 yards out.
Four years ago Portugal lost on penalties in the Euro 2012 semifinals against Spain. Last summer, it was the Under-21 side that lost on spot kicks to Sweden, with two players that started in Marseille–but did not kick in the shootout–Joao Mario and William Carvalho, taking them.
Poland’s outstanding winger Jakub Blaszczykowski was the unfortunate villain of the day, having Poland’s fourth penalty saved as he stuttered in his run-up and kicked to his non-natural side. He scored shooting to the same spot against Switzerland five days ago in the round of 16.
Portugal substitute Ricardo Quaresma took Portugal’s winning kick, striking the ball high down the middle of the goal to seal the win. In the past, Ronaldo has chosen the fifth kick; it was interesting to see him go first for Portugal, a decision that was made because his team lost four years ago to Spain before he had a chance to take one. It was the right decision; statistically, kickers No. 1 and 4 have more impact on the result of a shootout than the fifth, precisely because the fifth kickers do not always get a chance.
The fact that Ronaldo was willing to change, and not wait for the "glory shot," told its own story, especially as the Portugal captain had, until then, a night to forget.
In fact, the game started terribly for the favorite, as Poland roared out of the blocks, and quickly took advantage of Cedric’s first-minute lapse. The Portugal right back allowed a long cross-field ball to bounce over his head and Kamil Grosicki burst onto it.
Grosicki crossed for Robert Lewandowski, who made space for himself in typical fashion, and his first touch of the match guided the ball past Rui Patricio. Poland was ahead with 100 seconds on the clock. So much for this being the tournament of late goals (Poland tried exactly the same pass in the first minute of the second half, but this time Cedric was wise to it).
The goal gave Poland confidence and it created other chances in a compelling first half hour. Grosicki was outstanding in that period, giving Cedric constant problems. One Polish commentator called him Groszaldo. One exchange of one-touch passing, after high-pressing from Lewandowski forced a Portugal error, between Grosicki and Milik was outstanding. Milik and Lewandowski also found space, but Patricio smothered their shots.
Portugal slowly worked its way back into the game, with the three Sporting Lisbon midfielders gradually getting a foothold. Ronaldo tried his luck from a long-distance free kick, and perhaps no surprise it went straight into the wall. He has now taken 41 free kicks at major tournaments. Goals? Zero.
He had some claims for a penalty as well, when Michal Pazdan seemed to shove him in the box.
Soon after, Portugal was on level terms as Renato Sanches, the 18-year-old on his first start for Portugal, exchanged passes with Nani and fired in a left-footed drive that was deflected past Lukasz Fabianski. From the moment Portugal went behind, Sanches, the Bayern Munich signing, was an outstanding presence, belying his years in driving the team forward.
The excitement proved to be a mirage. The second period was much more of a Fernando Santos affair; cagey and controlled, as you’d expect from a coach who picks four central midfielders to play in the middle.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, was on the fringes, looking for return balls and trying to get into the game. Chances did come his way in the second half, but he snatched at them: a left-footed shot into the side netting, and two swing-and-misses inside the area, the second on 85 minutes after Joao Moutinho’s delicate chip left him onside and with just Fabianski to beat. He looked stunned that he missed it–none of his teammates dared to complain.
Ronaldo is Portugal’s game-changer, its inspiration, but this did not look like his night. He completed his hat trick–of misses, that is–in the first period of extra-time, by which time it looked like both teams had settled for spot kicks. But Ronaldo stepped up and had the last laugh.
His team has somehow reached the final after drawing all five of its matches after 90 minutes, and Ronaldo has not yet clicked into top gear.
Either Wales or Belgium beckons in the semifinals, and the signs are ominous that Portugal can keep going.