Gareth Bale had made the point that Wales’s historic run to the Euro 2016 semi-final had somehow not felt real. “In a way it doesn’t,” he said earlier in the week. As the madness swirled on the outside and the national fervour pulsed back at home, they had gone game by game, living inside their bubble.
This was the night when it popped, when the brutal reality intervened and when Cristiano Ronaldo decided it was time he made a grand statement at this championship. There had been the fear among the Wales support that, after some erratic performances, Ronaldo was surely due to step up. He scored the opening goal with a punishing header and set up the second for Nani. He might even have had more. It was the performance of a champion.
Portugal have known plenty of pain in major semi-finals; they had previously lost five of their six across this tournament and the World Cup. But the pain belonged to Wales here. Despite Bale’s non-stop endeavours, they struggled sorely to create too much of clear-cut note. The suspended midfielder, Aaron Ramsey, was missed.
The talk in the build-up had been about the Wales story; about how Denmark and Greece had defied the odds to lift this trophy. Leicester City, with their Premier League title, have helped to make this the year when the little guy has shouted loudly. Could Wales follow suit?
Ronaldo made sure that the established order prevailed. His was a captain’s effort; he drove at Wales from the first whistle and he bristled with menace. There has been the suspicion that Ronaldo has not been fully fit and, apart from his two-goal showing in the final group game against Hungary, he had misfired – but not here.
He had advertised his aerial threat and he made it count for the goal that broke the deadlock. His spring and hang-time laid the groundwork, following a short-corner routine and Raphaël Guerreiro’s out-swinging delivery, and his power and timing made the difference. James Chester, his one-time Manchester United team-mate, was unable to check him. Wayne Hennessey watched the ball fizz past him.
Ronaldo was at the heart of the second goal, too – the one that extinguished Welsh hope. He aimed a low shot for the far corner and Hennessey was moving in that direction when Nani slid in to divert the ball into the middle of the net.
Ronaldo celebrated the assist as though he had scored himself and there is little doubt that his narcissistic streak makes some people view him as the pantomime baddie. But on the big stage and when it mattered most, he delivered and there could be only be grudging admiration from those who have been desperate to see him fall flat. It is Ronaldo and Portugal who can dream of a first international trophy.
Wales gave everything they had and what Chris Coleman and his players have done for the nation will never be forgotten. They have thrilled at their first finals since the 1958 World Cup. The quarter-final victory over Belgium was the high point but there has been so much to admire about this band of brothers, who have been a team in the truest sense. Their spirit has ignited a feelgood factor and the hope is that it can sustain them in the future.
It was not enough here and there was the suspicion that fatigue was among their enemies. At least, there could be no recriminations – Wales were well beaten – and, at the end, the squad walked over to the corner of the stadium that housed the bulk of their supporters. Defiant song filled the air. The connection between the players and fans was stirring.
Portugal’s streetwise edge was as pronounced as their comfort on the ball. They had made it to this stage by being good enough, without truly hitting the heights and without tasting victory over 90 minutes. But they know how to get the job done and they showed it once again. They pressed on to the front foot; they hogged the ball and they settled into a rhythm. Wales were not allowed to find theirs.
Coleman’s players were stifled, apart from Bale, who did his utmost to drive the team. Three times in the first half he accelerated away from his markers in an attempt to make something happen. His most exhilarating moment was when he skipped away from Danilo’s slide challenge in the 23rd minute and lengthened his stride. He cut inside and shot but he picked out Rui Patrício’s midriff.
Ronaldo appeared to face an internal battle with his emotions; how he wanted to progress in order to atone for his team’s defeat at the Euro 2004 final. He was angry in the early going when James Collins, who came in for the suspended Ben Davies, hooked an arm round him to stop him from jumping for a header inside the area. The referee, Jonas Eriksson, was unmoved.
Ronaldo would bend the contest to his will. Bale kept going until the bitter end and he worked Patrício on two further occasions in the closing stages but, by then, the die was cast.
Portugal’s victory margin might have been greater. Ronaldo dipped a vicious free-kick over the crossbar; João Mario crashed wide after Hennessey had pushed out Nani’s shot; José Fonte worked the goalkeeper with a header and Danilo was also thwarted by him. Wales have illuminated the tournament. The road now leads home.
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