Cristiano Ronaldo won an otherwise tight contest in a commanding 3′ spell against Wales, earning himself and Portugal their first appearances in a major tournament final.
Though both teams had significant players missing, Portugal were probably better equipped to deal with their absences. With Danilo Pereira and Bruno Alves replacing the suspended William Carvalho and the injured Pepe, manager Fernando Santos had little to rethink in terms of Portugal’s shape. Portugal has been one of the most shapeless teams going forward, with Ronaldo and Nani moving across a front line that shifted between 4-3-3, 4-4-2, and 4-3-1-2. In this game, Santos had clearly opted for the latter, with Adrien Silva beneath the strikers and both João Mário and Renato Sanches pushing up into attacking positions. Moreover, the team actually retained this shape over the course of the game, something that has not happened thus far in the tournament.
That structure was probably related to Portugal’s first coherent offensive plan in the tournament. The plan was: hit crosses into the box for Ronaldo. Or rather: have Raphael Guerreiro hit crosses into the box for Ronaldo. Sometimes, simple is better, especially for a team that remains more focused on its defensive purpose than its attack. The potential penalty shout against James Collins early on was created in this way, as were both goals. Ronaldo’s header came from a short corner Guerreiro delivered in, and the short clearance of another Guerreiro cross allowed Ronaldo to set up the scuffed shot/assist for Portugal’s second.
Wales had two suspensions of their own to deal with: defender Ben Davies and no. 10 Aaron Ramsey. James Collins’s strength in the air was probably a decent trade-off for his lack of pace, and he was set on the right specifically to handle Ronaldo in the air. It’s not an accident that Ronaldo’s best ariel chances–including his goal–came against James Chester rather than Collins.
Ramsey was much more difficult to replace. Andy King put in a defensively responsible performance and did a good job of attacking the box, getting two near chances off right crosses from Gareth Bale and Chris Gunter. But King was lacked Ramsey’s ability to create chances, meaning that Bale had to double as both creator and finisher. As in the previous game, He and Bale switched sides frequently. They were less narrowly positioned than in against Belgium, probably because they had much more committed defensive roles here. King, in particular made sure to drop back on the right, presumably to help defend against Ronaldo.
As it became clear that Portugal were not going to offer any pressure against their back line, Joe Ledley and Joe Allen each took turns pushing forward into more attacking positions, essentially shifting from a horizontal to a vertical organization of the midfield.
The first half looked like a game on the way to extra time and penalties, though it was more entertaining than this description would suggest. The first fifteen minutes were all Portugal, but then from 18′-25′ Bale spurred a period of sustained Welsh threat that produced the best chances of the first half. From 30′ on, Portugal regained control of the game and probably just edged the half overall.
Portugal’s goals early in the second half opened up the game, forcing Wales into a more aggressive stance that allowed Portugal to counter more effectively. Chris Coleman’s changes were proactive, but didn’t have a real impact on the game. Bale had his best chance at 80′, a swerving shot that forced a fine save from Rui Patrício. Ronaldo got a chance in injury time to end his free kick scoring drought (his second in the game), but put his effort into the wall.
This was by far Ronaldo’s most decisive game in the tournament, and he has earned Portugal their place in the final. Having seen off his intra-club rival in this game, he will now have a chance to do what the now retired Lionel Messi has never done for Argentina. But the completion of that narrative awaits the final against today’s winner. Either Germany or France will be favorites against Portugal, and will look to control possession against a counter-attacking Portugal. This will suit Santos’s negative approach just fine, and Portugal will be hoping that Ronaldo has a final king-making moment left in the tournament.