Game of the Day: Portugal vs Wales, Lyon, 20:00
It’s one of the more unlikely semi-final couplings in recent times but it’s a game that has a narrative fitting for the big occasion. Gareth Bale’s Wales takes on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. The largest stars of Florentino Perez’s current crop of galatico’s, this is a game that has a domestic rivalry between team mates at its heart.
Thus summer Wales have proven that with organisation and team spirit that international football doesn’t have to be about the stars. Gareth Bale is the undoubted star of this Welsh side but his willingness to sacrifice himself for the team as led to Chris Coleman’s side genuinely fostering a sense of team spirit unrivalled by the rest of this summer’s semi-finalist.
Portugal conversely have Cristiano Ronaldo, the great one man show, whose captaincy appears to justify Ronaldo’s own opinion that this Portugal side is geared purely for him to flourish on the international stage. The very fact Portugal have failed to win a game in 90 minutes thus far is indicative of just what kind of tournament Portugal and Ronaldo have had this summer. A team whose quality remains but in execution is laboured and untogether.
In this tournament, if all the eyes of the world are on Ronaldo, all plaudits must be directed to Renato Sanches. The latest recruit to join Bayern Munich’s seemingly endless squad of brilliance, the Benfica academy graduate has forced his way into a starting berth in this tournament, displacing Joao Moutinho against Poland.
Physically it’s hard to compare Sanches to a play of this age. Paul Pogba is perhaps the closest in terms of age and position but Pogba’s strength lies in his height; he has a tall frame that he use to lever space. Renato Sanches is just a specimen. Broader than Pogba, his strength comes from muscle, his pace, and his tenacity. Throw into the mix a great passing ability and an eye for a thronking shot from range, Sanches has all the makings of a very complete midfielder and will be more than willing to assert himself on an Aaron Ramsey-less Welsh midfielder.
And it is in Aaron Ramsey that Wales have suffered their greatest loss. Leading the tournament for assists, the Arsenal midfielder has been incredibly impressive all tournament with his performances finally hinting at a player who is fulfilling his much lauded potential.
Wales proved that against Belgium that they are more than Gareth Bale. If victories against Russia and Northern Ireland were aided by moments of magic by Gareth Bale through breaking into the final third or easing pressure through finding a pass, against Belgium he was quiet.
Wales played with intensity, calmness and a team spirit that the Belgium side could only look on with envy. Wales may of rode their luck in the opening 20 minutes where Belgium looked like they were to dominate the game but in tournament football luck is part of the journey and Wales demonstrated across the rest of the game that they were more than capable of dominating parts of the game themselves. They haven’t reached the semi-finals by just being lucky, they have done it playing some very effective football.
Whilst all eyes may be on Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s the latter whose performance will be most scrutinised. Against Poland, Ronaldo was woeful. In a tournament that may be his last to be completely effectual, Ronaldo’s performances throughout have been sub-par and his role as captain lacking.
Whilst for Gareth Bale, his career trajectory continues upwards and in a Wales side where he is as much as a star as a team player, Wales are my favourites to make it too Paris and perhaps a signal change in the hierarchy of Real Madrid for next season is on the cards.
Rich, The Sweeper Football Blog