It was, in the end, all about Cristiano Ronaldo. The interminable Czech pre-match press conference had been dominated by discussion of him – “pretty good player” was the general consensus – with Michal Bilek, the Czech Republic coach, admitting that he would be adopting a more defensive approach to combat the Real Madrid winger. He wasn’t bluffing and the result was a bitty, scrappy game which Portugal eventually came to control.
So supine were the Czechs here in Warsaw last night, so seemingly surprised by their negativity were Portugal, that the opening minutes seemed to exist in a state of stasis. That it took just nine minutes for the first Mexican wave to ripple round the stadium said much for the lack of early incident. But gradually Portugal came to dominate the ball and with the Czechs offering almost nothing as an attacking threat – Vladimir Darida failing to deconstruct Portugal as a fit Tomas Rosicky might have done – their attacks became more and more frequent and supported by more and more players.
Finally, with 11 minutes to go, the breakthrough came, Nani creating space for Joao Moutinho, who crossed for Ronaldo to beat Petr Cech with a powerful header. It was a goal that was greeted with relief but, realistically, the Czechs were so punchless that a winner was only a matter of time.
Only seven players have scored more goals in the European Championship than Milan Baros, yet his last strike came eight years ago when he was 22. These days the pace has gone and he lumbers around desultorily holding the ball up, winning the occasional free-kick and conceding a couple more. Even having gone behind the Czechs seemed quiescent, mutely accepting a fate that had seemed certain from midway through the first half. Bilek and Baros have both been heavily criticised in the Czech media, jeered even by Czech fans, and it is hard to imagine reaching the last eight will spare them on their return.
The key battle had been expected to come on the Portuguese left, the Czech right, as the Real Madrid pair of Fabio Coentrao and Ronaldo faced up to the admirably purposeful Czech right-back, Theodor Gebre Selassie, and Petr Jiracek, who has thrived on the wing in this tournament despite being more usually a central player. For the most part, though, with Jiracek sitting deeper than previously, the pairs cancelled each other out, and Ronaldo was forced further and further infield in search of the ball.
After his superb display against the Netherlands, this was a patchier performance from Ronaldo, initially frustrated and petulant, maturing into excellence as the match wore on. The odd thing was that despite Ronaldo playing almost as a centre-forward at times, Gebre Selassie, with space in front of him, probably had his poorest game of the tournament as well, looking indecisive in possession and, on one occasion, attempting a reckless flicked back heel in his own box. That resulted in Pepe lofting the ball across the box to the back post, where Ronaldo dragged an overhead just wide.
However fitful his involvement, Ronaldo remained by far Portugal’s most biggest threat. One interchange with Moutinho after a superb run from Coentrao brought him charging into the box with Michal Kadlec.
Howard Webb, the referee, decided Ronaldo had been the aggressor as they tussled but Cech beat away Ronaldo’s shot anyway. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Ronaldo took down a long pass from Coentrao, turned Kadlec majestically and pinged a low shot off Cech’s left-hand post – the fourth time he had struck the woodwork in the tournament, more than any other team, never mind any other player. His capacity to switch from preening flakiness to sublime brilliance is surely unique.
The Portuguese inability to produce a striker is notorious – unless you’re feeling charitably disposed to Nuno Gomes, they haven’t had a top-class one since Eusebio – and they lost the striker they did have five minutes before the break as Helder Postiga was forced off with what appeared to be a hamstring problem. Hugo Almeida, who replaced him, immediately went to the left, despite his lack of mobility, with Ronaldo operating as the central striker. Ronaldo rasped a free-kick just wide, and then moved back to the left. The constant switches, presumably, were intended to confuse the Czech marking but it was hard not to wonder if they were self-defeating, a contributory factor in the game’s bittiness.
Still, the longer the game went on, the more a Portuguese goal came to feel inevitable. Cech, seemingly back in form after the weird lapses of the first two games, beat away a shot from Nani and tipped over a Moutinho drive. Then Nani, laid in by Raul Meireles, had an effort deflected over off Kadlec. Eventually the goal did come, Ronaldo’s third of the tournament, but Portugal’s reliance on him is surely unhealthy.