The gulf in pedigree of the teams in the first Euro 2016 semifinal on Wednesday may be stark, but for both Portugal and Wales the opportunity standing before them is identical. Just one step remains from a spot in Sunday’s final and touching distance of a most unexpected first ever senior international trophy.
There is little question that Portugal is far more familiar with such an exalted position. Indeed, in reaching the last four in France, Portugal has now been in the semifinals of four of the last five European Championships, a feat unmatched by any other country across the continent. The Seleção, though, has only once been beyond that stage and even then it tasted heartbreak on home soil against Greece in the final of Euro 2004.
For Wales, expectations have already been greatly exceeded in what is only the country’s second ever appearance at a major tournament and first since 1958. It has, however, been Wales that has been by some distance the more impressive side en route to the final four.
Having topped its group via wins over Slovakia and, emphatically, Russia, Chris Coleman’s side edged past Northern Ireland in the round of 16. And then came one of the best performances of the competition by any team to date.
Against a hugely talented Belgium side in the quarterfinals, Wales fell behind early and was on the ropes. But confounding its reputation as a defensively focused counter-attacking team, Wales hit back, taking the game to Belgium and emerging emphatic 3-1 winners. Along the way there was a contender for goal of the tournament from the club-less forward Hal Robson-Kanu and superb header from Burnley striker Sam Vokes.
Portugal, meanwhile, having canceled out Robert Lewandowski’s quick opener through 18-year-old Renato Sanches, required a penalty shootout to sneak past Poland in a quarterfinal of far fewer fireworks. The result means Portugal has reached the semifinals without winning a single match within 90 minutes. In the whole of Euro 2016, Fernando Santos’ team has only led for 22 minutes, 19 in an opening draw with Iceland and three after Ricardo Quaresma’s late goal in extra-time that saw off Croatia in the last 16.
It has very much been a defensive-first approach from Portugal, while hoping for a piece of magic from its undisputed talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo. And that is where Wednesday’s semifinalists also share common ground: they have one global superstar who stands head and shoulders above his teammates. Adding further intrigue to the semifinal, both just happen to be teammates at Real Madrid.
Ronaldo and Wales’ Gareth Bale have won two Champions League titles in three seasons together at the Bernabeu, but there have been consistent rumors and, indeed, signs of their relationship not always being the most comfortable. Ronaldo is a player that demands to be the center of attention, and there is surely no question that it will bring only extra anguish if what is potentially his last hope to win silverware for his country is ended by a team led by a club mate who usurped him as the world’s most expensive player.
Now aged 31 and with signs that he has already moved past his absolute physical peak, Ronaldo is desperate to take what is his best opportunity since Portugal fell to Greece 12 years ago to get his hands on an international trophy. That sense perhaps explains why he has been a man on edge for most of his time in France, notably throwing a reporter’s microphone into a lake and then refusing to answer questions at a post-match press conference. And, of course, there have also been his theatrical reactions to things not going his way on the field.
Bale, meanwhile, has been in far more relaxed mood. Most notably, there was his jovial provocation of England ahead of the neighbors’ group-stage meeting. On the field, the 26-year-old has looked happy to just be another member of the team, fully relishing this unexpected position at the business end of a major tournament.
Still, Bale, like Ronaldo, will be doing everything to take the most of a chance that for both may never come again. And, having performed solidly but not spectacularly so far, both will be determined to leave their own personal mark.
Prediction: There will be particular onus on Bale to deliver, given that Aaron Ramsey, who was superb against Belgium, will miss out through suspension. Replacing the Arsenal midfielder promises to be no straightforward task. Indeed, suspensions could play a key part in the semifinal, with Wales also missing left-sided center-back Ben Davies, while Portugal will only have to do without defensive midfielder William Carvalho.
With both teams likely to stick to their counter-punching game plans, goals may be at a premium in Lyon. If Wales does impose itself as against Belgium, then Coleman’s men could certainly come out on top once again. But Portugal’s greater quality in depth and Santos’ shrewdness may just be enough to see Ronaldo and his side squeeze through to the final, although perhaps once more only via extra time or penalties.
Predicted Score: Portugal 1-0 Wales
Portugal win: 6/5
Wales win: 3/1