Nothing illustrates the underwhelming nature of Portugal’s surprising advance into the quarter-finals at the expense of a better-equipped Croatia team better than the fact that Renato Sanches was named the official Uefa man of the match.
Not Luka Modric or Ivan Rakitic, whose mastery of midfield had propelled Croatia past Spain to the top of their group and made them one of the favourites for the tournament. Not Cristiano Ronaldo either, whose marauding spirit and refusal to lie down against Hungary had done so much to help his side reach the knockout stage. Little was seen of that Ronaldo in Lens; for the most part Croatia cut his supply line and until the 117th minute his most useful role was in hanging about dangerously to remind the opposition it might not be a good idea to send too many players forward into attack.
Sanches came on only after the interval, and the Benfica teenager, in whom Bayern Munich have just invested €35m, initially looked no more than an enthusiastic bruiser, barging opponents off the ball and running close to a booking on a couple of occasions. When he made room for a shot towards the end of normal time he missed the target by a considerable distance, though he was in good company there. Almost laughably, neither goalkeeper had a save to make until the final three minutes of extra time, when the game burst into frantic life just as everyone was expecting a tepid encounter to go to penalties.
Sanches earned his accolade in that short period. After Ivan Perisic was unlucky to see a header come back off a post, the closest by far the game had come to a goal in almost two hours of football, Sanches was instrumental in turning defence into attack straight away, carrying the ball across the halfway line before Croatia fully realised the danger and finding Nani in the area. Nani’s astute pass set up Ronaldo for the first clear strike at goal of the evening. Ronaldo duly managed the game’s first attempt on target, and though Danijel Subasic produced a good save to keep it out, he could do nothing about Ricardo Quaresma following up to accept the rebound.
Portugal go through to meet Poland in Marseille, an opportunity Croatia would surely have fancied, and though there was sympathy for Ante Cacic’s claim that the best team had lost – “as sometimes happens in football” – there was also a realisation that his side had been rumbled. “We played a tactical game,” Portugal’s Fernando Santos said. “We knew that Croatia play their best football on the counterattack, that is how they won their group, and we refused to let them do that. We wouldn’t let them have space behind our defence in which to run.”
That partly explains why the game contained so few chances, though Croatia fans will be rueing the number of decent opportunities – Domagoj Vida was particularly guilty, though it was significant that a defender should be considered most wasteful – that missed the target by miles. When even Modric is overhitting his passes and as cultured a player as Rakitic is sending free-kicks straight out of play, it has to go down as an off-day. Croatia missed a great chance, possibly freezing in the glare of their own publicity, allowing a distinctly average Portugal side through.
Not that Poland will be favourites in Marseille. Portugal have a lot of tournament savvy and they still have Ronaldo, who can clearly influence games even when not at his peak.
“Poland must be a good side, they have made the last eight,” Santos said. “We have played them before, and you have to respect a team that recruits its players mostly from the Bundesliga. Robert Lewandowski is a very good player, of course, but we have 23 good players of our own and I trust all of them.”
Sanches, the 18-year-old who took Ronaldo’s record by becoming the youngest Portuguese player to appear in a tournament, has yet to start a game but is happy with the way things are going. “I don’t worry too much about whether I am in or out, I just take my chances when they come along,” he said. “If I’m in the starting line up I’m in, if I’m out I’m out. I’m still learning about tournament football and I’m happy to trust the coach. He’s getting us through.”
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