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Wales’ journey comes to an end as Ronaldo gets to run the Portugal show

Wales' Gareth Bale reacts

As the minutes ticked down at the Stade De Lyon the Wales support took the chance to sing goodbye to this tournament, just as Iceland had in Paris, a beautiful little wake for a few weeks that will live on in a series of glorious moments.

It is a list that stretches out. The Robson-Kanu turn. Joe Allen’s pass. Bale against Russia. The high-class dissection of Belgium, world No1s not so long ago, in Lille. And best of all, that impossibly engaging sense of fun and focus and togetherness.

In the end, though, it had to be him. In a semi-final billed as the battle of the attacking guns it was Cristiano Ronaldo, a relentless, rapid-fire presence, who finally zeroed his sights and settled this game. There was no indignity for Wales in defeat, or indeed for Gareth Bale in a much-hyped individual duel that was in reality never quite an individual duel.

Bale played well but was starved of the ball as the match was settled after half-time. Both teams like to wait, Wales without the ball, Portugal in fussicky possession. In the end it was that intricate keep-ball, pushing Wales steadily back, that gave Ronaldo the chance to pull himself up to his full height and batter Portugal into another final.

There was a feeling in the buildup that Ronaldo was, as cricketers say, “due”. Perhaps the most extraordinary part of his wastefulness in this tournament has been his refusal to be cowed, his insistence on simply keeping on keeping on. For all his occasional graceless qualities, Ronaldo remains a high-class footballing terminator. You simply cannot call him off.

So it proved to be here, although the decisive blow came after an even first half. Again the Welsh anthem was belted out with neck-prickling volume before kick-off by the red block inside this humid out-of-town bowl.

Land of My Fathers has been one of the great moments of this tournament, a tune written in the 19th century by James James, and in fact the first sporting anthem of them all, first sung more than a century ago as a fraternal response to the touring All Blacks’ haka.

It is a song of defiance and grace in adversity, which seemed a fair refrain for a first 20 minutes that Portugal dominated in their diffuse, nagging way. Ronaldo’s first act was to waggle about and dust off that old teenage swivel over the ball, an indication that he fancied this stage. On his first run he was dragged down by Ashley Williams, who also got the ball. No free-kick but plenty of arm-waggling.

Moments later Cedric put in a fine cross from the right. As Ronaldo jumped he was throttled by James Collins, biceps round his neck. Ronaldo sat down and slammed his hands into the turf in pantomime-toddler fury. Already he was steaming. This was going to end one of two ways: with an enraged Ronaldo grimacing with disgust; or a vengeful Ronaldo grimacing with glee.

For a while Bale drove his team back into this game, dropping deep, getting himself on the ball, spreading belief by osmosis. There was one for the montage as he had his first run on the right, bumping off Ronaldo in that rugby league-ish style. Moments later there was an instance of pure Bale as he picked the ball up in his own half, slalomed away from Danilo’s lunge like a huge grey-shirted pond-skater and sprinted 40 yards with the ball.

With Collins matching him in the air Ronaldo pulled to the right on to James Chester’s side, heading just over from Adrien Silva’s cross. And five minutes into the second half it came, the Ronaldo machine gun, hosing each opponent in turn, hitting the target at last.

The goal came from the most outrageously lovely header, Ronaldo taking a running jump and drifting in slow-mo above the grappling players beneath him, easing Chester out of the way and powering the ball with a full-flush thump of that immaculate forehead into the back of the net. Ronaldo ran to the corner and slumped on his back in exhaustion for so long there was a sense of genuine alarm. Perhaps he had hurt himself? Then, springing up, he turned and did his He-Man snarl, clenching his arms out and showing the cameras his name, which was helpful just in case.

Moments later it was 2-0. Ronaldo took a bouncing ball, jinked and shot. It was going wide but Nani was in the right place to prod home. As he ran off to celebrate there was the competing spectacle of Ronaldo turning to the linesman to check on the offside flag, then keeping his arm raised in individual celebration, just in case there was any doubt. Don’t worry, old son. Assist. It’s in the book.

So, on to Paris for a player who has had a muddled, messy tournament but who might just feel this one has his name on it. If Ronaldo can seem almost cartoonish at times, it is worth remembering he is a rather improbable figure all round, a self-made footballing machine who is in effect his country’s most public export, the skinny Madeiran kid who has come to bestride Portuguese football. His super-status can also camouflage the fact Portugal are, in their own right, long-term underdogs, a nation of 10 million all set to play its second major final in 12 years. Neither France nor Germany will look forward to playing this resilient, smothering bunch, a team with a plan and a route to goal.

Wales went to their fans at the final whistle to clap and wave and smile a little ruefully. As a final round of the anthem was sung there was a tinkle of applause around the stadium as the remaining Portuguese and neutrals clapped them off on their way. It was a lovely full stop to a night of authentic late-stage tournament drama settled by an authentic modern-day attacking giant.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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