Cristiano Ronaldo proved the difference in a very cagey encounter under the roof of the national stadium in Warsaw after he was rewarded for a persistent testing of Petr Cech’s goal, hitting the post twice before stooped to meet a cross from Joao Moutinho eleven minutes from time to send Portugal into the semi-finals of Euro 2012. Czech Republic battled hard but rarely threatened Rui Patricio’s goal in what was a defensive display for the majority of the game, and there was no doubting that the better side had edged the first of the quarter finals.
Portugal; (4-3-3)- Patricio, Joao Pereira, Pepe, B Alves, Coentrao, Moutinho, Veloso, Meireles (Rolando (’88), Nani (Custodio ’84), C Ronaldo, Postiga (Almeida ’39)
Scorer- C Ronaldo ‘79
Czech Republic; (4-2-3-1)- Cech, Gebre-Selassie, Sivok, Kadlec, Limbersky, Hubschmann (Pekhart ’86), Plasil, Pilar, Jiracek, Darida (Rezek ’61), Baros
How it played out
Czech boss Mikael Bilek sprang a surprise in bringing the relatively untested Vladimir Darida in ahead of Daniel Kolar to replace the injured Thomas Rosicky, but the team was largely as expected with Jarolsav Plasil supporting David Hubshcmann behind the 3 capped Darida in midfield.
For Portugal, Paulo Bento went for the same starting XI that has been consistent in all of their matches so far, with Helder Postiga getting the nod to lead the line between the two fair players of Nani and Ronaldo.
With the Czechs unwilling to move to far up the pitch at risk of being exposed for pace in the full-back position, it made for a nervy first half with either side taking a conservative stance to avoid falling behind early on. Theodor Gebre-Selassie stuck very tight to Ronaldo as expected and was far more reserved in joining Czech attacks, so the Real Madrid winger was told to drift in field whilst Fabio Coentrao operated as an auxiliary winger from the left-back position.
It was from Ronaldo drifting in-field that carved open the first period’s best chance, Raul Meireles gaining space in midfield to probe the defence with a lofted ball that fell invitingly for Ronaldo to superbly take the ball down, swerve and strike against the post.
The Czechs struggled to create chances throughout, with the Portuguese full-backs pushed up, this lessened the attacking licence of Pilar and Petr Jiracek on the flanks which saw Milan Baros become isolated against the physicality of Pepe and Bruno Alves. The game-plan appeared to be to invite the young Darida to run the channels with inviting balls from deep, but apart from an early half-chance created for Baros on the slide, the partnership remained ineffectual and Miguel Veloso did a satisfactory job of marginalising the 21 year old from the game.
As the game wore on, Ronaldo began to see a greater influence as he became more involved in a free-role. With Coentrao urged to get forward into Ronaldo’s vacated space, Jiracek was pushed back which in turn prevented him from making the direct, darting runs that have been a feature of the Czech play in these finals.
Therefore, that compounded with Veloso keeping tabs on Darida, Milan Baros often found himself with nobody within 10-15 yards of him, making it easy for Pepe and Alves to win the ball back and consistently launch Portugal attacks which saw Nani and Meireles both test Petr Cech with long-range shots, whilst Meireles’ direct running from midfield created a golden chance for Hugo Almeida that was headed wide.
The Czech back four were holding firm, embodied by the battling Tomas Sivok and Michal Kadlec at centre-half, whilst behind them was a goalkeeper in inspired form, but there was little Cech could do about a swerving Ronaldo free-kick that again hit the post, much to the winger’s annoyance.
Joao Pereira was beginning to balance the attacking full-back duty over on the right flank as Paulo Bento tried to generate more attacking support by overloading Vroclav Pilar and David Limbersky, but the former managed to scamper free on the wing for the Czech’s best opening of the second period, choosing to pull the ball back for Milan Baros which was duly cleared.
Baros was completely anonymous when devoid of support, yet was preposterously kept on the field in his lone role up until the 86th minute by Bilek, who will regret not granting him some attacking support sooner. Jan Rezek replaced Darida on the hour in a move designed for Jiracek to move into the middle, but this was to utilise his strength and physical frame in breaks more than anything.
With the ball constantly coming back for white-shirted attacks, Portugal were pressing, Meireles and Moutinho had positioned themselves as virtual attacking midfielders and a goal was inevitable as Hubschmann and Plasil became over-ran, but the winner was engineered out on the right; Nani was allowed to slip the ball to Joao Moutinho who drove into the box on the inner right channel to supply a deadly back-post ball for Ronaldo to attack, taking advantage of blind-defending by Gebre-Selassie to power home a diving header.
The 6″4 frame of Thomas Pekhart came on as Bilek rolled the dice but it was all too late, Bento’s Portugal held on to reach the last four despite a tense final minute corner that was disappointingly wasted with Petr Cech up in attack.
The Portugal win was a fair reflection of a dominated game; the stats of 60% possession in favour of Bento’s men who produced 30 shots to the Czech’s 3 will be enough to suggest it would have been incredibly harsh had they lost to Bilek’s Czech side here. It was a brave effort defensively by a far inferior Czech Republic team and the manager will take heart, at least, from the improvement they have shown since their 4-1 demolition at the hands of Russia on the opening day.
Joao Moutinho- Pepe, Coentrao, Meireles and most obviously Ronaldo are all legitimate contenders for this accolade, but Moutinho was superb in supporting the attack from midfield and made the telling contribution in crossing the ball for Ronaldo’s match-winning header. It was a fine, intelligent performance from the Porto midfielder who pressed the ball high-up the pitch and used the ball widely alongside Raul Meireles as they tried to make their dominance pay off by urging men into advanced positions.
Czech Republic Star-man
Tomas Sivok- Was a rock at the back alongside his defensive partner Michal Kadlec, both staying deep and organising the back-lines well, as illustrated by an effective off-side trap that saw Hugo Almeida have a header ruled out for offside. They managed to deal with mostly everything that came at them through the middle and whilst they were ultimately undone by a cross from wide, the two centre-halves will take pride in a fighting display in front of a goalkeeper who provided some superb stops from decent efforts.
What to expect from Portugal now?
The Czech Republic will make the short flight home as soon as possible with Bilek surely facing questions on his refusal to address Milan Baros’ apparent struggles as the lone centre-forward, whereas Portugal will begin preparations for their semi-final with either Spain or France in Donetsk on Wednesday.
This was an impressive performance from Portugal and with the irrepressible Ronaldo leading proceedings as he yearns to be the match-winner, they will always be a threat to the majority of teams. They were solid defensively here and used a lot of energy in midfield that saw a lot of creativity and fluidity as they moved the ball up the pitch. They have shown tonight they are also adept on the front-foot as they are on the back-foot which plays into their hands of counter-attacking through the pace of Nani and Ronaldo.
Bento will await the winner of Saturday’s meeting between France and Spain to see which team, and more importantly what style, his team will be facing in the last four, but a more rigid approach may be adopted in an important match, so expect them to utilise their skill on the counter-attack again with a lot more clinical finishing.