For both Poland and Portugal, the route through the first knockout round at Euro 2016 wasn’t pretty. Neither, though, will be overly concerned given the opportunity that now stands before them. The two countries, with one appearance in a final of a major tournament between them in their history, will face off in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals in Marseille on Thursday knowing that the victor will take on either Belgium or Wales for a place in the final.
For Cristiano Ronaldo, the chance has suddenly appeared to get his hands on some international silverware in what is the last tournament he is likely to be a part of during, or close to, his physical prime. While arguably more a hindrance than help to his side in Portugal’s first two matches — draws with Iceland and Austria — he has been key to keeping his side alive in the last two.
First came two goals and an assist in a wild 3-3 draw with Hungary to take Portugal through to the knockout phase. Then in a dour Round-of-16 clash with Croatia, it was Ronaldo’s 117th-minute shot, the first effort on target for either side, that led to a save from the goalkeeper and a header into the net from Ricardo Quaresma.
For Ronaldo, the match was extraordinary in that his effort deep into extra time was the shot-heavy Real Madrid man’s only shot of the contest. That fact demonstrates just how limited the attacking output of his team was in Lens. But after the crazy openness of the match with Hungary, it was hardly surprising that Portugal coach Fernando Santos would go back to defensive basics.
Santos gave plenty of evidence of his ability to set up a team to be hard to score against in four years in charge of a notoriously stodgy but resilient Greece side. And it was those same tactics that helped him have an immediate impact upon taking charge of Portugal in 2014. After Portugal’s campaign began with a 1-0 defeat at home to Albania, Santos arrived and led the team to seven consecutive victories, conceding just four goals in the process.
There is every reason to believe, with so much on the line, that a similar approach will be taken in the quarterfinals. And given how Poland has gone about its business thus far in Euro 2016, it may not exactly be a thriller for the neutral.
Poland’s route through to a first-ever European Championship quarterfinal has very much been built on solid organization. Adam Nawalka’s team has conceded just two goals in four matches to date, scoring only three. Indeed, its best performance of Euro 2016 so far arguably came in a goalless draw with world champions Germany.
In the Round of 16, having taken the lead against Switzerland, Poland then reverted back into its shell and, after conceding an equalizer, appeared happy to take its chances in a penalty shootout. Striker Robert Lewandowski converted from the spot in a 5-4 shootout win, but the team’s star man has failed to make an impact from open play.
After scoring 13 goals in 10 qualifying matches and 42 goals for Bayern Munich last season, the striker has yet to hit the net in France and, indeed, has only had two shots on target. Nawalka has complained of the rough treatment Lewandowski has been receiving from defenders, but assistant coach Hubert Malowiejski insists he will be raring to go against Portugal.
“We are not worried about Robert, not at all,” he said. “Of course he felt some pain after that match, but there is not even the slightest bit of doubt he will be ready for Portugal.”
Prediction: It promises to be a cagey affair in Marseille, with both teams’ caution only heightened by the opportunity now standing before them. There have been signs of Portugal’s team coming together, but it has still yet to win a match inside 90 minutes in the tournament. Ultimately, the result could come down to which team’s star, Ronaldo or Lewandowski, has the bigger impact. If Poland can be more ruthless in attack and Lewandowski can get his game going, Poland could just have the edge, potentially only after 120 minutes.
Predicted score: Poland 1-0 Portugal
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN2
Live Stream: Watch ESPN