Connect in the back of the net

Below is the tenth installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “Footé in France” by O-Posts mainstay and top football writer, Adam Gray.

Wales made history on Wednesday night, competing in their first ever major tournament semi-final, against Portugal who were competing at this stage of a European Championship for the fourth time in the past 16 years.

In Lyon however it was difficult to work which team was more familiar to this stage as Portugal, who have so far staggered and stumbled through these finals, edged out a cagey contest.

An open-top bus parade awaits Wales’ fallen heroes in Cardiff on Friday after a tournament in which they have captivated not only their humble country but most of the continent with solid organisation and an immense team-ethic.

Their win over Belgium in the quarter-final was superb, but the needless yellow card and suspension Aaron Ramsey picked up in that 3-1 win curtailed them here.

Gareth Bale, tried as he may to conjure up something special, was robbed of his midfield running partner and the sight of the Real Madrid man dropping off 50-60 yards to set off passing moves was tinted with frustration.

They will be disappointed with the way they were beaten however, succumbing to a three minute burst of excellence from Cristiano Ronaldo early in the second half.

His goal, a super-human leap to head home at a corner, owed to sloppy marking from James Chester and Ashley Williams, preceded a speculative shot that was lunged past Wayne Hennessey by a grateful Nani.

Chris Coleman’s Wales, so solid in their finely-drilled 3-5-2 system until this point, will return home in regret over the short spell of lazy defending that cost them as Portugal, in keeping with the theme that has followed them through this tournament, offered little up until that point.

Ronaldo had been kept quiet, sometimes at the very edge of the rules, by Chester as some bright play from Renato Sanches on the right flank, justifying the £28 million Bayern Munich have spent on him, went unfulfilled.

There had been widespread incredulity that Portugal, yet to win a game up to this point having scraped through the group stage as a third-place team, had made it this far, and the sight of Adrien Silva and Joao Mario aiming harmless shots at Hennessey’s goal from outside the box in the first half went some way to reinforcing that disbelief.

Portugal have looked short of cohesion and fluency in these finals and bar the Ronaldo-led salvo in the 3-3 draw with Hungary they had not played well. The knockout games with Croatia and Poland were mundane, forgettable affairs in which luck was rode and individual quality relied upon to shine through.

In Ronaldo however they have a definitive individual, slow to warm to these finals as he battled with match fitness early on but now finding the time to make it his tournament.

The extraordinary athleticism on display when he towered above Chester to convert Raphael Guerreiro’s cross will offer France a gentle reminder of the task that lies ahead of them in Paris on Sunday.

Despite having Ronaldo, after a season in which he struck 51 goals in 48 games for Real Madrid, at centre-forward alongside the effervescent Nani, who has adapted well to his central-striker role, Portugal look oddly short of impetus in the final third.

Silva, Joao Mario and Sanches are all capable attacking midfielders but each look unsure of their position, often getting in each other’s way in the build-up to the cost of creativity.

Against Wales there did seem an expectation on Joao Mario’s part for Ronaldo to drop to the left which, when it never occurred, caused moves to break down.

Manager Fernando Santos will have to work on the communication void that has dogged his team’s attacking play so far in these finals if they are to trouble France, possessing a defence far more equipped than Wales’, in Sunday’s final.

The main strength of Santos’s team though, strangely enough considering the wealth of technical quality they have in attack, even with Valencia’s Andre Gomes and Fenerbahce’s Ricardo Quaresma, who has developed into a key player for Portugal in France despite spending years in obscurity, waiting on the bench, is a defensive resilience at odds with their country’s established style.

The brutish William Carvalho usually shields the back four but with suspension ruling him out of the tie with Wales, the inexperienced Danilo Pereira proved an able deputy in marshalling Bale with the help of Silva.

Santos can use them both in the final if he needs to keep Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet quiet, at the expense of one of the trio of attacking midfielders in a position that seems overloaded, and in the faith that they can provide the platform for Sanches, Nani or of course Ronaldo to make the difference.

The defence coped comfortably against Wales, limiting Hal Robson-Kanu, Bale, Andy King and co. to spurious threat but Santos will be hoping that Pepe, injured for the match in Lyon, will be fit enough to return in time for Paris.

Bruno Alves, in his first action since his boot caught Harry Kane’s head in the warm-up friendly at Wembley, looked unsurprisingly short of match-sharpness though a last-ditch challenge to deny Sam Vokes in the second half highlighted the 34 year old’s lasting ability.

Pepe’s big match experience will be crucial however and if fit he will surely return to partner Jose Fonte, who has looked accomplished since seamlessly replacing Ricardo Carvalho after the group stages, at centre-half in St Denis.

It is though a back-two short on pace, so they would have to be cautious over leaving the room behind them that Griezmann will not require a second invitation to scamper into.

More questions will be asked defensively of full-backs Cedric Soares, who benefits from a club-relationship with Fonte on the right of the back four, and Guerreiro, who were allowed to push forward and conjure some dangerous crosses against Wales, on Sunday.

But Soares has impressed since dislodging Vieirinha after Santos ripped up his defence following the 3-3 draw with Hungary, while Guerreiro has earned his £10 million move to Borussia Dortmund during this tournament for a reason after a series of defensively assured performances for Lorient last season.

They will all contribute to a defensive shape that appears far more harmonious and in tune with each other than their attack line, a bizarre trait for a nation that has Ronaldo, Nani and Sanches and has been blessed with the likes of Luis Figo and Deco in recent years.

Santos will have to address that lack of fluidity in the final third, maybe sacrificing an attacking midfielder in favour of an extra defensive midfielder as they prepare to face more dangerous opposition than Wales.

The sluggishness with which they have negotiated their way through these finals may help in Paris, as they will be the unfancied underdog who can utilise their defensive rigidity to play on the counter-attack with the pace of Nani and Sanches and the brilliance of Ronaldo.

It is 12 years since they were on the receiving end of the sting in the home tournament party, but now they sit primed and ready to inflict such pain on France.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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