Wales’ progression to the semi-final of Euro 2016 has had a slightly surreal feeling to it; as other, more highly rated teams were sent home, Chris Coleman’s men just kept doing what they do and found themselves facing Portugal, who had looked pretty underwhelming through the tournament thus far. However just as us football romantics were starting to dream of another Denmark or Greece, who shocked the whole of European football in 1992 and 2004 respectively, the 12 year cycle of underdog winners came to an end.
Suspension denied Wales the indefatigable Ramsey in midfield and the composed Ben Davies at centre back; in came Andy King, himself an underdog winner with Leicester, and James Collins of West Ham.
In the build-up to the match Chris Coleman had stressed to his players to believe in themselves and to go out to win it; but just as they had against Belgium, they looked anxious and sloppy in possession in the opening quarter of an hour. They survived an early penalty shout when Collins, determined to impose himself on Ronaldo, won a header but had clearly wrestled the Real Madrid star out of the way with an arm around his neck.
As they settled down, despite missing the energy of Ramsey breaking forward, Wales started to control possession more effectively and establish themselves in Portugal’s half. Portugal seemed content to let them have it and to try to play on the counter.
From the midway point of the first half onwards, Wales started to hint that if anyone was going to make the breakthrough it was going to be them. Inevitably it was Gareth Bale who was at the heart of things, first he fired a shot over the bar, then his low ball into the area was just in front of King sliding in, and then he tested Patricio with a drive from 20 yards. It was the most concerted attacking action of the first period but at the same time it didn’t feel like Portugal’s defence was overly concerned. As the teams went in at the break it could only be hoped that Wales wouldn’t rue not making more of their period in the ascendancy.
However in the space of eight cruel minutes at the start of the second half Wales’s dream of making the final lay in tatters. First Ronaldo rose brilliantly, as he has done so many times before, to power a header from Joao Mario’s cross past Hennessey, then less than three minutes later his scuffed shot from the edge of the area was turned home by Nani and Wales were left with a mountain to climb.
From there on in Wales gave everything they had to try and get back into the match, Bale in particular seemed like he felt he almost had to do it on his own; but it always felt as if anything they tried was more in hope than conviction.
In the end it was all in vain, they couldn’t find a hero or the breakthrough they were desperately searching for and it is Portugal who progress to Sunday’s final.
Wales will rightly be disappointed and will reflect on what might have been but they can be very proud of the tournament they have had and Chris Coleman and his players should rightly be considered as heroes. Watching them has been an absolute pleasure and a breath of fresh air for the tournament.
As for Portugal, they still haven’t played well but as their manager Fernando Santos said last week he is “not worried about being the ugly duckling or someone who feels sorry for himself. I’m interested about getting to the final and winning it,” now that they have reached the final it remains to be seen if they can overcome France or Germany, neither of whom they have beaten for a long time.