James Lawton: Overmars outshone by visionary Figo in tense battle of veterans

For a time it seemed Portugal would reach the final of their national dream in the very best of style. Infused with passion by the people and led by a Luis Figo displaying all his old panache, that was the thrilling prospect when they led by two goals inside an hour.

For a time it seemed Portugal would reach the final of their national dream in the very best of style. Infused with passion by the people and led by a Luis Figo displaying all his old panache, that was the thrilling prospect when they led by two goals inside an hour.

But then the Portuguese are not melancholic for nothing and what we had in the end was not untrammelled glory but desperate tension - and the unedifying sight of goalkeeper Ricardo feigning injury in an attempt to kill time. It shouldn't have been like this. Figo, in the first half had played with both fierce commitment and the sharpest of insight.

It also happened that in the last seconds of what for the Portuguese was interminable added time Deco had the simplest chances to kill the game. In the end, though, they staggered home, the flags were unfurled and still another party could begin.

Coming to the ground, which is the home of Sporting Lisbon, you could see the burden on Figo and his men. It was literally painted in the blue sky, on the banners and flags flying from the windows of the high-rise housing warrens that look down on the sweep of the old city.

Now with Figo, who started with Sporting as a phenomenal teenager before moving on to Barcelona and Real Madrid, for £37m, playing possibly his last game for Portugal, the fever was running high. "Figo, it is our time," said one banner. Over the last few days Lisbon had covered itself in red and green as it built to this latest heightened moment in the nation's long crusade for a moment of final glory. Could Portugal, which had produced Eusebio and Coluna and Figo, finally join the winners?

The Netherlands' erratic coach Dick Advocaat went back to his own veteran, 31-year-old Marc Overmars, in an effort to enliven an attack that had performed so listlessly against Sweden in the quarter-finals. Figo versus Overmars was one battle to impose the value of nerve and experience. The instinct was that there would be many others, not least the crucial duel between Ruud van Nistelrooy and the outstanding defender Ricardo Carvalho, and so it was. It was certainly easy to imagine the elation in those endless, pastel-painted flats as Portugal won most of them.

Figo, who some believed was disaffected and at war with coach Luiz Felipe Scolari after running into the dressing-room after being replaced at a crucial stage of the quarter-final with England, most dramatically carried the hopes of his country with a first-half performance which recalled some of his most luminous days. He too is 31, but while Overmars' chief distinction was earning a yellow card for protesting an offside, Figo played with a wonderful vision and élan.

After Cristiano Ronaldo had headed Portugal into a 27th-minute lead from a corner by Deco - Ronaldo had won the kick after mesmerising his marker Michael Reiziger with some sleight of foot - Figo came with an inch or two of killing off the Dutch. Four minutes from half-time, it would have been a sword-stroke of devastating value, but after leaving Giovanni van Bronckhorst on his heels and out of the game, he saw his shot smack back off a post.

It was his most spectacular piece of work but it was his overall effort that filled the stadium with extraordinary expectancy whenever he touched the ball.

Deco and Ronaldo were also anxious to take the game to the Dutch, who had reason to be grateful for a mere one-goal deficiency at the break.

The usual worry that missed chances - the Portuguese striker Pauleta was guilty of three by the early stages of the second half - can sometimes store up devastating defeat appeared to be eased when Maniche scored an extraordinary goal in the 58th minute. The midfielder, picking up a short corner, will probably, and truthfully, claim the shot that whipped past Edwin van der Sar was the pure fruit of malicious intent. Others might say he intended to deliver a cross. Up in the high rises it was no doubt a point of absolute irrelevance. Portugal were surely home.

It was brief euphoria, however Five minutes after Maniche's strike, the Dutch, against all logic, were back in the game. Jorge Andrade, whose careless back-header let in Michael Owen for England's first goal in the quarter-final, was again the problem, knocking a cross from Von Bronckhorst past the startled Ricardo.

Portuguese serenity was suddenly at grave risk, Scolari bringing on the defensive midfielder Petit for the exuberant Ronaldo and then, not before time, Nuno Gomes replacing the profligate Pauleta. Portugal, the whole nation that is, was now obliged to hold its breath.

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