After Portugal won the penalty shoot-out last night it became known to the watching world that they had progressed to the semi-final of the European Championships without winning a single game in normal time. Three draws in the group games and an extra-time winner against Croatia saw them match up against Poland in the first quarter final, an interesting game which showed the potential direction of the two sides. Here are the 5 Things We Learnt:
1. Ronaldo REALLY wants this
Cristiano Ronaldo, love him or hate him, is undeniably a phenomenal athlete and footballer who dominates the world stage in a way arguably nobody before him has managed. He has the showmanship, talent and physical capacity to dominate front, back and middle pages of any newspaper and whether you love or loathe him, there is plenty to admire and aspire to (as well as a very healthy ego!). This tournament could well be his last chance to win a major trophy with his country and you can see it in his every action how badly he wants to lead them to victory. Whether that be for the personal honour of having carried the team for so long and finally getting his reward or a genuine love for Portugal and his team-mates (I imagine it is more the latter, but certainly some of both), his facial expressions have told a fantastic story in this tournament so far. Have no doubt that you will see him in tears either in success or failure because he wants to win this tournament more than any other trophy this season (regardless of his current form issues, which arguably stem from him losing focus on his own game).
2. Portugal can go all the way
After the group phases, I would never have let myself write that sentence... But after taking one of the best teams out of the tournament in the round of 16 by beating Croatia and then fighting their way through the quarter final against the Polish they have shown they can hang in there and earn results the hard way. It hasn't been all that pretty, although the game against Poland was much more open until extra time, but they have done enough and with that will come confidence. Combine that with Renato Sanchez making an incredible debut, more to come from Ronaldo and a very impressive Pepe marshalling the defence and there is no reason to think they can't get to the final, especially given their potential semi-final opponents. Pepe has been outstanding for them, curbing his aggression just enough to keep him on the pitch, whilst maintaining a solid and intimidating presence in the centre of their defence. The one factor going against Portugal is their fitness levels, which will be seriously tested after both their knockout matches went the full 120 minutes.
3. Poland have quite the team
They might not have all the stand out names, other than Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich fame, but this Poland side has been built in much the same way as Wales have found their success. With the dynamic strike pairing of Lewandowski and the highly rated Arkudiasz Milik; a talented goalkeeper in Lukas Fabianski, marshalling a defence containing an experienced right-back in Lukas Piszczek; and his combination play with former Borussia Dortmund man Jakub Blaszczykowski on the right side, Poland have a good balance of experience and newer names, such as Kamel Glik, who may be less well known around Europe. They have a number of good players in key positions and plenty of pace in the team, which combined with the experience of the Bundesliga stars and the leadership of Lewandowski (which Zlatan could really learn from...) made the Polish side difficult to beat and exciting to watch. Milik spurned a couple of chances against Germany, which meant Poland couldn't pull off a shock, but I think they will be more disappointed to not have reached the semi-finals after such a good tournament. They will be ones to watch in World Cup qualifying and with the tournament being played in the home of their long-term "organisational leaders", what better motivation to go a long way in that tournament too?
4. This is the tournament of the collective
There have been very few stand-out individual performances in this tournament and there is little to suggest that any of the sides that have made it this far are reliant on one player. Yes, a lot of them have their one exceptional talent: Poland and Lewandowski; Ronaldo and Portugal; Bale and Wales; Sigurdsson and Iceland. But really, Lewandowski and Ronaldo have disappointed so far, whilst Bale and Sigurdsson have been part of a much more impressive team that have earned their place in the quarter finals. Bale is tied at the top of the scoring charts, but arguably two of those goals should have been saved and it is the collective contribution of the lesser lights around him who are inspired to do well for him and their country that is driving their success. Iceland too have got this far as a team. Surprise package Italy have found their success based on defensive solidity and with the absence of Pirlo, Verrati or Balotelli there is no big name in their squad for the focus to be drawn to. Germany, Belgium and France are different, in the sense that their teams are packed full of talented individuals who have performed well together so far. But Portugal and Poland proved again yesterday that it is the collective effort which is finding the most success at this tournament and that is enough to justify the decision to increase the size of the Euros. It may not have been the tournament of thrills that was hoped for but the success of the underdog has kept alive the romance of Leicester's Premier League title win.
5. Renato Sanchez
Having said that, each tournament gives birth to a new star or two and this year has been no different. Fans of Portuguese and German football will have had an idea of who Renato Sanchez was before his first international start against Poland but now the eyes of Europe are on the talented 18 year old. He scored the equaliser, tucked in the second penalty like a seasoned professional and won man of the match (arguably for bursting onto the scene; Pepe was by far the best player on the pitch), whilst displaying the composure and decision making ability of a player with an extra five years experience. His defensive ability was clear to see, as he read the game well and used his physicality to good effect. Going forward he distributed the ball effectively and used both feet with equal comfort, something more developed stars could learn from sometimes. Arguably the weakest part of Poland's side is the central midfield area, so time will tell if he can be equally effective against higher calibre opponents in the next round, be that Ramsey and Ledley or Naingolan and Witsel. Either way the initial signs are good for the young star and we at Fresh Off The Gegenpress are thoroughly looking forward to seeing him in the Bundesliga next season!
Editor and Iceland fan (Est. 27.06.2016)
This is where it all begins. Our resident analysts study the unrecognised players and examine the matches that are of interest across Europe.