Come back group stage, all is forgiven. Portugal advanced to a quarter-final against Poland thanks to Ricardo Quaresma’s decisive goal three minutes from the end of extra time but, unbelievably, it had taken that long to produce an attempt on target.
This was a shocking match, barely redeemed by a frantic last few minutes. Croatia were easily the better side but they were punished for playing too cagey a game and not making the most of their superiority. Cristiano Ronaldo was quiet throughout, like everyone else, yet his contribution was still significant.
When Nani found him in the area after almost two hours of sterile, boring football, he became the first player all night to test a goalkeeper. It is possible that Rui Patrício touched Ivan Perisic’s header on to a post seconds before Portugal swept upfield to score, but according to Uefa’s statistics Croatia had zero attempts on target. Ronaldo definitely had one, and made it count. Danijel Subasic stopped his shot but could not hold it and Quaresma was left with a simple follow-up. Portugal looked a spent force for much of the game. Croatia must be kicking themselves, but have no one else to blame.
“We dominated the game but we didn’t score,” the Croatian coach, Ante Cacic, said. “So the best team lost. It happens in football.” His opposite number, Fernando Santos, thought it was a very tactical match. He did not say stalemate but that could be what he meant. “Croatia played the best football in the group stages but we wouldn’t let them play their counterattacking game,” he said. “It was hard for us too but today we were the lucky ones.”
The game was billed in some quarters as a showdown between the Real Madrid stars Ronaldo and Luka Modric, and it was quickly obvious that the latter would be seeing more of the ball. Modric pulled the strings for Croatia, anchoring himself near the centre circle and operating as the team’s fulcrum, and so neat was his side’s passing game that Portugal spent the first few minutes searching for possession, with Ronaldo a distant figure upfield.
Not much came of Croatia’s initial supremacy, however, whereas what little Ronaldo saw of the ball he was able to put to effective use. When he showed enough of the ball to Perisic to win a free-kick midway through the first half, Pepe headed over the bar from João Mário’s cross in what counted, disappointingly, as the game’s first attempt on goal. The second came shortly afterwards at the other end, when Nani gave the ball away in midfield and Perisic found space on the right but could only shoot into the side netting.
The rest of the first half was uneventful and frankly quite dull. The best Croatia could do was send over free-kicks and corners in the general hope of finding Mario Mandzukic, only to succeed in picking out less accomplished finishers who missed the target every time. Portugal’s plan was even more basic: to look for Ronaldo every time they crossed the halfway line, something the Croatian defence had little problem in spotting and snuffing out.
So meagre were the pickings the television resume of first-half highlights at the interval included a foul by José Fonte on Ivan Rakitic which ought to have brought the Southampton defender a card, possibly even a red one had the referee seen the stamp on the floored Croatian’s leg as deliberate.
The second half began in the same fashion. Croatia seemed inhibited, unrecognisable as the attacking force that had lit up the group stage, with even Modric’s passing going astray, though Ivan Strinic’s crossing gradually improved. When the left-back put the ball in the right area it almost brought a goal, Marcelo Brozovic inches away from connecting on the six-yard line. The resulting corner was played short and this time Brozovic found himself with a shooting chance, only to miss the target by a distance when he should at least have been asking the goalkeeper to make a save.
Portugal brought Renato Sanches on early in the second half, presumably to inject some energy and direction into midfield. It could not have been for his shooting, for when he made space for himself to take a shy after an hour he managed to miss the six-yard box as well as the goal.
Croatia were doing most of the second-half pressing, and almost took the lead when Domagoj Vida met a Darijo Srna free-kick with a firm header but put the ball narrowly wide. Vida then did well to intercept a searching pass from William Carvalho that would otherwise have found Ronaldo in the area. Though barely figuring in the game, Ronaldo was clearly a worry for Croatia, who were wary of leaving too much space at the back or allowing Portugal’s main attacking threat to go unguarded.
With neither side remotely bothering the goalkeepers, extra time was inevitable. Croatia probably thought penalties were inevitable too, which is why they were caught cold when Sanchez brought the ball upfield after Perisic’s miss and Ronaldo finally snapped into action.
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