Cristiano Ronaldo has never been keen on allowing Gareth Bale to take centre stage at Real Madrid, so it should be no surprise that the Portugal captain denied the Welshman the glory of a place in the Euro 2016 final with a match-winning display to end Wales’ dreams in Lyon.
Having won the hearts of a nation by progressing the semi-finals of France 2016 in their first major tournament since 1958, Chris Coleman’s team can now prepare for a homecoming parade in Cardiff rather than a trip to the Stade de France on Sunday evening.
And when they assess their failure to take one more step to reach Paris – failure is hardly the right word – it will be the contribution of Ronaldo which ultimately made all the difference.
A stunning header which gave Portugal the lead, followed by a pass to Nani for the second, three minutes later, saw Ronaldo win the personal duel with Real team-mate Bale.
But this game was bigger than that for two of the world’s most outstanding footballers. It was about carrying their country to brink of becoming European champions and it is Ronaldo and Portugal who are now just 90 minutes away from that distinction.
Wales? They have made an immeasurable impact back home and created heroes for a new generation to idolise, so their success is already without question.
Wales were facing their first major semi-final without the suspended Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, two crucial components of the team’s run to the last four, and they left big holes in Coleman’s starting XI.
The job of overcoming the loss of Ramsey’s creativity and work ethic in midfield was handed to Leicester City’s Andy King, while James Collins – a man whose international career appeared over until Coleman backed down following a selection row between the pair in 2013 – was handed the thankless task of patrolling the right side of a back three and attempting to shackle Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is a testament to the Welsh team ethic, however, that both players assumed their duties seamlessly, with King’s sharper pace making up for the loss of Ramsey’s ability to pick a pass.
Portugal had their own selection issues, however, with Real Madrid centre-half Pepe ruled out with a thigh injury and midfielder William Carvalho suspended – two players as important to coach Fernando Santos as Ramsey and Davies to Coleman.
But just as against Belgium in last Friday’s quarter-final in Lille, Wales started slowly, with anxiety creeping into their early play.
Joe Allen twice lost the ball in dangerous positions inside the opening eight minutes, with a yellow card the punishment on the second occasion when he fouled Nani in an attempt to regain the ball.
Collins then escaped a strong Portugal penalty appeal when referee Jonas Eriksson dismissed Ronaldo’s claims, despite the Wales defender clearly hauling the Portuguese captain to the ground with an arm around the neck.
Coleman had urged his players to fight fire with fire in anticipation of similar rough-house tactics from Portugal, but Wales were jumping the gun and their over-exuberance threatened to cost them dearly.
When Ronaldo freed Joao Mario to shoot wide on 16 minutes, Wales were beginning to creak, but the near miss served as a delayed warning and Coleman’s players settled down and did as they did against Belgium by taking more care in possession.
But the game was a slow-burner, with both teams wary of committing too much in an attacking sense.
And it did not look like Portugal versus Wales either, with both teams playing in their change strips – mint green in Portugal’s case and an odd combination of slate grey and lime and green the Wales colours.
Perhaps both sets of players were struggling with colour blindness, but it was not until midway through the first-half that Wales tested Portugal ‘keeper Rui Patricio with a flurry of good efforts.
Bale began to involve himself, sending a left foot shot from Joe Ledley’s corner over bar before delivering a dangerous cross King at the near post.
The Wales talisman gave a glimpse of his devastating pace by accelerating away from his own penalty area and sprinting deep into Portugal territory before seeing Patricio save his left-foot strike from 20 yards.
It was close, but there was no real sense of Patricio being overly-concerned and that was the theme of the first-half – shadow boxing with the real punches still to be thrown.
But when those punches came, they were delivered by Portugal and they were a ruthless combination which floored Wales and ended their dreams of reaching the final.
The first came from Ronaldo on 50 minutes and it was a majestic contribution by the Real Madrid forward.
Having lost Collins just inside the penalty area for Adrien Silva’s corner, Ronaldo burst into the six yard box and, with incredible spring, outjumped the static James Chester to send a bullet header from Joao Mario’s cross past the helpless Wayne Hennessey.
Ronaldo celebrated as though it were the winning goal in the final, lying outstretched on the turf for his team-mates to worship him, but while it was not the game which made Portugal champions of Europe, it was a big one nonetheless.
And just as Coleman and Wales were beginning to plot a route back off the ropes, Ronaldo hurt them again three minutes later by creating the opening for Nani to double Portugal’s lead.
The former Manchester United winger, who this week confirmed a transfer to Valencia from Fenerbahce, has performed well as a central striker in France and he did so again, ghosting between Collins and Ashley Williams before diverting Ronaldo’s cross past Hennessey with his right foot.
Portugal, who had reached the semi-finals without winning a game in 90 minutes at Euro 2016, were now in the mood to go for the kill and Ronaldo sent a 25-yard free-kick fizzing over the crossbar on 62 minutes.
Hennessey then spilled a Nani shot before Bale, dredging the energy to launch a late assault, attempted to make a difference with two long range efforts.
But it was all in vain. Wales had nothing left, their heroics had run out.
It was Portugal and Ronaldo’s night, but Wales have had a month of those.
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