This was the death of a dream, but not a reason to wallow or curse at the thought of what might have been.
1) Wales can look back on the tournament with pride and no regrets
Wales have been a breath of fresh air at this championship, a side back at a major finals for the first time since 1958 having excelled on the pitch while their magnificent support chorused them gloriously from the stands. They missed the banned Aaron Ramsey’s composure and creation here but, even so, it took a phenomenon in Cristiano Ronaldo to break them. Gareth Bale and Ramsey have played their stellar roles but there have been outstanding performers throughout the squad: from James Chester at the back, through the bearded Joe Ledley in midfield – it is staggering to consider he broke his leg in early May – and the clubless but tireless Hal Robson-Kanu up front. “We can’t come off with any regrets,” said Chris Coleman before kick-off. Even in defeat, they should return home with none.
2) Cristiano Ronaldo was born to illuminate occasions such as this
This was to be Ronaldo’s night. An evening which had begun with a smile and a hug for an opportunist teenager gatecrashing Portugal’s team photograph quickly descended into the usual arm-flinging frustration and incensed whinging at the referee. Ronaldo seems to have to whip himself up into a stroppy frenzy to find some form and, from the moment Ashley Williams was not penalised for a foul on the forward three minutes in, he was berating anyone who would listen. James Collins, in for the suspended Ben Davies, actually dealt with him well for long periods but Ronaldo, in amid the petulant playacting, was merely waiting for his moment. The leap above James Chester and thumped header which forced Portugal ahead early in the second half was glorious, his assist for Nani’s second rather more fortunate. Yet, on each occasion, the manic celebrations ensured the world knew who had stamped his name on the tournament. These can still be his finals.
3) Wales may have been eclipsed, but Gareth Bale was still brilliant
Ronaldo’s effervescence did not leave Bale in the shade. Just as you think the Wales talisman is peripheral, almost uninterested, he bursts into contests from nowhere. It was the 26-year-old who had hauled his team-mates out of their initial sluggishness here, demanding possession and marauding up-field with such purpose as to leave the Portuguese panicked. The manner in which he shrugged off the man-mountain Danilo reflected Bale’s strength and confidence, the ensuing surge from inside his own half a reminder of the threat he poses from anywhere on the pitch. The fact Ronaldo was a match-winner here gives the impression Bale played second fiddle. But has there been a more inspirational player at these finals? One capable of lifting the mood of all those around him so often? The only other candidate would be Ronaldo, and Portugal probably boast players of better individual quality than the Welsh. Bale will depart disappointed he could not affect this game to the same extent as his Real Madrid team-mate, but his tournament has been staggering.
4) José Fonte has quietly become integral to Portugal
The steady and impressive progress of José Fonte at these finals had largely gone unheralded, even perhaps in Portugal where he has played so few club games over a 14-year career. The Southampton defender had seen Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho preferred as Portugal’s centre-halves through the group stage but, after the side shipped three to Hungary, was offered a chance in the knockout stages. For a player of relative inexperience at this level, his form since has felt revelatory: solid and authoritative, rugged yet assured. The prospect of this contest, against players he knows so well from England, will not have troubled him even with Pepe crocked and Bruno Alves recalled in his stead. Alves’s last involvement had been to kick Harry Kane in the head in a pre-tournament friendly, and he was the more jittery of the pair. Fonte, in contrast, looked a seasoned international rather than one earning his 15th cap. Even at 32, he appears to have a fine future at this level.
5) Portugal will relish being underdogs in the final on Sunday
The Portuguese will sense this is their moment. Whether it is France or Germany who await on Sunday back in Saint-Denis, Portugal know they will be underdogs in this tournament’s showpiece event, and they will care not a jot. This is a team who have found their feet after that winless group section, a side who have already seen off the much admired Croatia and who can ruffle the feathers of the hosts or the reigning world champions. Ronaldo remains their go-to performer, but Fernando Santos has struck upon a system and style which allows Sporting’s Joao Mario and the teenager Renato Sanches, recently transferred to Bayern Munich for £27m, to flourish in their own attacking briefs. Even Nani looks a goal threat. This was their seventh semi-final at a major championship, and only the second they have won. Now, 12 years on from losing out to Greece in the final of their own tournament, they can play party-poopers of their own.
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