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James Lawton: Joachim Löw's Mercedes overcomes minor bump as Cristiano Ronaldo steals the night in a Ferrari

Portugal captain hits top speed but Dutch underachieve again

The German juggernaut briefly spluttered but on a night which could have seen their ambush, they were too good, too strong for the splendid Danes, one team in the soccer universe for whom there will never be the regret that they failed to give it all they had.

It was something the banished Dutch have rarely been able to claim in a history of under-achievement that once again ran into the shallows. It took a powerful run from one of Germany's lesser players, the utility player Lars Bender, to carry his team into a quarter-final collision with Greece.

Despite being plunged into the shadow of a superbly resurgent Cristiano Ronaldo, it was hard to believe that the Dutch had not died substantially by own hand and that perennial failure to reach out for the best of themselves.

In the end Germany and Portugal won their just rewards. They had the bigger players, the deeper will.

For a little while the "Group of Death" seemed something quite the opposite, at least in terms of the already rude health of this tournament which has already produced football of the quality to suggest it may ultimately prove worth all the trouble beyond the touchlines.

Even the Dutch suspected that it might in the end prove the "Group of Life".

That certainly was the message sent out by Rafael van der Vaart, whose neglect as a starter up to this critical point was surely one of the most serious reproaches to the decision-making of coach Bert van Marwijk that left them struggling so desperately on the margins of qualification. Van der Vaart had been forced to watch the midfield dreadnoughts Mark van Bommel, the son-in-law of the coach many suspect has at times benefited from the family connection, and Nigel de Jong picked ahead of him.

Released into the formative action at last, Van der Vaart scored with a beautifully flighted shot after Arjen Robben laid the ball square. It is a trademark of the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder and, briefly, it persuaded his team-mates that salvation, however improbably might just be the air.

This was a possibility, though, that receded sharply once it became clear that Ronaldo was determined to produce a little evidence that he might indeed be an authentic challenger to Lionel Messi's status as the finest, most productive player in the world. Ronaldo had put in a parody of such a claim right to the moment he smoothly accelerated on to a pass from Joao Pereira to equalise a few minutes later. Ronaldo grew and so, inevitably, did Portugal, not least because of a porous Dutch defence which seemed to have drawn little benefit from the dropping of the harassed Everton veteran John Heitinga.

Still, it was a night of football that promised to come to an extraordinary fine edge when down the road in Lviv, Denmark's obscure but hugely combative attacker Michael Krohn-Delhi conjured up the almost unimaginable when he equalised Germany's Lukas Podolski's early goal to threaten the qualification the team who for so long have seemed the most potent threat to the reigning champions Spain.

If Ronaldo, in Portugal's changed strip of all-red had suggested a Ferrari, the Germans were again giving a fair impression of a Mercedes purring down the outside lane of the autobahn. But the Danes are quirky, spiky footballers who never quite know when they are battling out of their league – a fact which will always be enshrined by their extraordinary title win in 1992, when they were the late replacements for civil-war shattered Yugoslavia.

There wasn't much doubt, though, who finished the night as the new focal point of the tournament. Ronaldo laid claim – as he would in his sleep – for such status when, shortly after contriving a chance for Nani so gloriously it was inconceivable that the Manchester United man could miss, he scored a goal of such inevitability that it mocked the failure of his team-mate as well as remind us that in the finishing business Ronaldo can produce a certainty for some time has been one of the wonders of the game.

As Joachim Löw 's side upped gear in an attempt to kill off the Danes, and came so close when Podolski's replacement Andr Schürrle nearly scored, there seemed little doubt that Ronaldo had stolen the football night with one of the tautest scripts ever written in the history of the game. He did have a rival, though, in the brilliant Dutch maverick Van der Vaart. He had scored one sumptuous goal and as Portugal continued to squeeze the last life out of the Dutch, he almost scored another with a shot that flew off a post.

But then the night belonged so thoroughly to Ronaldo, with even Germany in the chorus line, it would have been cruel if his delicate little shot near the end had brought a hat-trick rather than that familiar pout as the ball bounced off a post.

In the Group of Death European football has been suffused with brilliant life.

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