Wales’ stunning run in Euro 2016 was brought to a crashing halt by Portugal as ex-Manchester United players Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani scored within three second half minutes of each other to set up a final showdown with either world champions Germany or tournament hosts France.
Much has been made of the team spirit Wales possess, and there was no lack of togetherness on the pitch in Lyon but they just didn’t have the quality to deal with a Portugal side led by superstar Real Madrid forward Ronaldo.
Both sides came into the game missing key players, with the Portuguese without solid defender Pepe, and Aaron Ramsey suspended for Wales.
Ramsey has been absolutely superb in this tournament, with four assists, and was arguably their best player in the 3-1 win against Belgium in the quarterfinals. Along with skipper Ashley Williams – and of course Bale – Arsenal midfielder Ramsey has been one of the driving forces in the side and his absence proved crucial with Wales unable to make anything happen against the organised Portugal back line.
The first half consisted of some light sparring between the two sides, and was dominated by a penalty claim from Ronaldo as West Ham defender James Collins grappled with the Portugal skipper in the Welsh box. Neither goalkeeper had much to worry about and as the half time whistle went, Wales manager Chris Coleman must have been sensing that the
game was there for the taking.
On the evidence of that first half, Wales were definitely in with a huge chance of reaching the Paris final, but that all changed five minutes into the second half.
Ronaldo, 31, has had a fairly quiet tournament – barring his two goals in the 3-3 draw with Hungary – but once again delivered on the big stage with a sensational header. Rising high above every other player, Ronaldo powerfully headed a corner beyond Wayne Hennessey in the Welsh goal.
The jubilation from him and his teammates was clear to see, and they knew that it was a huge goal. But if Ronaldo’s opener gave Portugal a foothold, it was Nani that effectively ended the contest.
Yet again the play went through Ronaldo but his shot was skewed and heading wide before Nani reacted to prod home and make it 2-0. You could sense that Wales’ journey was probably going to come to an end, and – for a change – sheer passion just wasn’t going to be enough.
Leading up to this game, Wales had beaten Slovakia, Russia, Northern Ireland and Belgium, as well as losing to England, whereas Portugal hadn’t won a game in 90 minutes. The Portuguese drew all three of their group games before eliminating Croatia in extra time and Poland on penalties. For that reason, Wales would definitely have believed they had a chance of getting to their first ever major final and the reception the players received from their adoring fans epitomised that fact.
Even after the defeat, the Welsh fans were in full voice, showing their appreciation of a superb tournament that has alerted the world to their potential. For a nation that has been in the international wilderness for 58 years since appearing at the 1958 World Cup, the semifinals would’ve been the stuff of dreams before their campaign began. As it happens, Coleman’s boys have made it a reality and they will return to the UK – and more importantly Wales – as legends and national heroes.
However, their fairy-tale has come to an end, and it will be Portugal in their second European final in 12 years. Ronaldo was on the losing side in 2004 against Greece and Portugal will go into this year’s final as underdogs regardless of who they’re playing.
You just feel, though, that Portugal finally clicked against the Welsh, and as Wales themselves have shown, in football anything is possible. Could it now be Ronaldo’s year to put the icing on the cake of a wonderful career by winning a major international honour – as a captain no less?