Euro 2016 has been the tournament of the underdog so far and Wales’s meteoric rise faces yet another big obstacle when they face Portugal for a spot in the final in Lyon. Both sides were outside the general conversation when it came to the tournament winners towards the start but they have reached the last four through a mix of individual skill and collective solidity and nerve, and with the earlier of the semi-finals and the kinder half of the draw, victory is entirely realistic.
That will dissapointment many purists when considering that Portugal are yet to win a game in 90 minutes but Fernando Santos and his men will not care a jot and for all their games have not entertained (whose have?) they could just as easily have taken nine points from their Group as they did 3.
Their last 16 game against Croatia did not raise hopes – or anything else besides – but against Poland they responded well to going down in the second minute and were making better chances during the second half than at any time during the Croatia match, alongside being the better side in extra time before the penalties.
The lack of a striker has shoehorned Nani and Ronaldo into forward positions which has reduced their effectiveness – but Renato Sanchez has stepped into the plate brilliantly with creativity and force and Silva and Joao Mario provided him with a solid base.
Perhaps more importantly, their defence has in the main been solid, with only Hungary scoring twice against them during the Championships and even that thanks to two deflected long range strikes that would have evaded any keeper. Pepe has had a towering tournament and the solid but steady Jose Fonte make for a potent rearguard to cover Rui Patrcio himself.
Whilst Portugal have failed to light up the tournament, Wales will be its enduring success story regardless of the result. Chris Coleman’s men qualified progressively and have continued with a combination of defensive solidity and counter attacking prowess that took them top of Group D in style and eventually to tonight.
And what’s more, a side that just did enough in qualifying has opened up on occasion, putting a dire Russia side to the sword and then simply overwhelming a Belgian outfit that had put Hungary to the sword just days before. In that quarter final Wales looked as if they were going to be put to the sword early and they could well have been after Radja Nainggolan’s thunderous strike.
However from then on the Welsh kept their cool and, albeit forced through circumstance, they put large amounts of pressure on Belgium and they had already forced Thibaut Courtois into a top save before Ashley Williams put his thundering header home and after that the men in red either the equal or their better.
Welsh attacks overwhelmed a changed Belgian defence that admittedly did have players out of position and Aaron Ramsey took complete control of the game through the midfield, with the focus on Gareth Bale allowing him space to launch Welsh attacks that eventually proved to be too much for Belgium, who ended up well beaten even if it took a remarkable Hal Robson-Kanu Cruyff turn and Sam Voakes’ huge header to do the job.
On all evidence the gap between Portugal and Wales is once again too big but the loss of Aaron Ramsey in midfield thanks to suspension is huge for the makeup of the game. The Arsenal man has been a star in the tournament, thriving in the space that defenders give to Bale and setting up four goals so far. Without him Portugal will feel far less threatened in midfield despite Joe Allen’s metronomic workrate and Joe Ledley’s Spain like possession .
There is a feeling that Croatia and Poland did not play to their best in an attacking sense despite advantageous conditions against Portugal, especially the latter who did not take the most of a fantastic start, so there is certainly an opportunity for the Portuguese defence to be put under more pressure. That said, Wales were benefitted by Belgian defensive shake ups (Thomas Vermaelen suspended and Jan Vertonghen injured meaning that Jordan Lukaku played at left-back, with Jason Denayer at centre-back).
Portugal didn’t get the finishing their shots deserved in the group stages but they took a worrying offensive drop against Croatia and whilst they made the better of the chances against Portugal, they have not been as effective during the knockouts going forward and Cristiano Ronaldo has struggled for space. Renato Sanches, scorer of the equaliser in Marseille and the inspiration for the the only goal against Croatia, has broken out as the creative force in a side that may see Ronaldo and Nani struggle to get the space they need against a side that has not conceded more than one in a game. The absence of Ramsey may give him more space in midfield and the 15/2 for a third straight man of the match with Paddy Power makes plenty of appeal.
Regarding the match odds, 6 of the 10 European Championship Semi-Finals have gone to extra time at least and Portugal have had five draws so far in the tournament. The 21/10 on the draw looks obvious and Portugal, if continuing the current trend in the Championship, may look to be stronger during extra time.
1 pt Draw (21/10 Paddy Power)
1 pt Portugal in extra time (9/1 general)
1 pt Renato Sanchez Man Of The Match (15/2 Paddy Power)