THERE are just four nations left in the mix at Euro 2016 as we reach the semi-finals.
First up, it’s the day of reckoning for Wales as they face the biggest match in their football history as they take on Portugal in Lyon.
The Welsh have been sensational in France and have exceeded expectations, but why stop now? Thoughts of reaching the final and even lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy are starting to seem realistic.
Can the ten men of Wales beat the ten men of Portugal?
YOU will notice the deliberate error of saying ‘ten’ rather than ‘eleven’ in my headline, but that’s because we know all about the various talents and influence of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. What the 20 other players do on the field will just as important, if not more so. And that is where Wales possibly have the edge over the Portuguese as their team-play has been far superior over the course of five matches.
The secret of Chris Coleman’s success has been to inspire incredible performances and moments from unheralded players. Hal Robson-Kanu – without a club at the moment – scored the winner against Slovakia and then his unforgettable strike against Belgium, which featured a Cruyff turn past three defenders. Left-back Neil Taylor scored his first international against Russia after marauding forward from his position at the back.
Right-wing-back Chris Gunter has barely stopped running for five games and even had the energy to provide the cross for Sam Vokes’ bullet header late on against the Belgians. While guys like James Chester and Joe Ledley have only enhanced their reputations with a series of consistent displays.
Who is to say that someone else from the pack won’t step forward tonight and make the difference? That could be James Collins or Andy King, who will come into the team because of suspension. Bale has been great, but he would be the first to admit he has not done it on his own. And it’s that team ethic which could push Wales all the way to the final at the Stade de France.
Will Portugal let Sanches off the leash?
REGULAR readers of this blog will know that Portugal have left a negative impression throughout their time in France. Five matches in and they are still to win a game inside 90 minutes, which feels outrageous. Now they are potentially 90 minutes from an unlikely place in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo has tried everything, but apart from an inspired 12-minute burst against Hungary, when he scored twice and kept his country in the tournament, nothing has come off for him.
Yet, there has been one bright spark for the Portuguese at Euro 2016 and it has been in the shape of Renato Sanches. Less than a year ago, Sanches was still playing for Benfica B in the Portuguese Second Division. But the 18-year-old was introduced into the first-team in late October and from that point, Benfica dropped just five points in 27 league games as they overtook Sporting Lisbon to win the title. Sanches’ dynamic displays were keenly noted by the big boys and Bayern Munich snapped him up for an initial £25 million.
The teenager began this tournament on the bench but was introduced at half-time and after 50 minutes against Hungary and Croatia and the team immediately picked up. He finally played from the start against Poland and scored a fine equaliser, but apart from the goal, he gave his side more drive from midfield. Coach Fernando Santos has shown himself to be very defensive in his outlook, but how he uses Sanches tonight will be revealing. This is a young player who needs to be given freedom to provide energy and spark to a conservative group. If he does that, Sanches could have a big impact, and make everything for Portugal less centred around Ronaldo, which has hindered rather than helped the rest of the team here at the Euros.
Player of the Day: Pepe
NEVER mind Player of the Day, this should be more like Villain of the Day. So step forward Pepe, the third Real Madrid man to be involved after Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. The Portuguese defender would probably be a contender to be the most unpopular player in world football, certainly outside of Portugal and Real Madrid supporters.
Pepe is uncompromising, he pulls shirts, he does bad fouls, he cheats, he dives, he feigns injury, he tries to get opponents sent off. It is a long list of crimes and it is certainly not well received in these isles. But don’t be fooled by all that chicanery – Pepe remains one of the best defenders in Europe. Players don’t remain under the spotlight at Madrid for nine seasons unless they have real quality and a very strong character, which is exactly what the Brazilian-born centre half has. He was excellent against Croatia in the last-16 and he will be up for the challenge of stopping Bale. He’ll believe that if he does his job at one end, his other Madrid mate will do the business at the other to secure Portugal a date in Paris on Sunday night.
French of the Day
Ne me prenez pas à la maison! (Don’t take me home!)
Portugal v Wales, 8pm, ITV