KEIR RADNEDGE in KHARKIV: Fact and fantasy teamed up as Germany and Portugal progressed to the quarter-finals of the European Championship with identical 2-1 victories in Ukraine over Denmark and Holland respectively.
Joachim Low’s Germans delivered the facts, as had been expected in Lviv. Disposing of the Danes established them as the only team in the tournament to win all their group games; Lukas Podolski (19min) and Lars Bender (80) scored the goals against one for Michael Krohn-Dehli (24).
Box ticked. Job done.
Nothing so prosaic, however, way over to the north-east in Kharkiv.
Portugal defeated Holland by exactly the same margin but only after a match of intriguingly contrasting emotions and lit up by the flare and the flair of Cristiano Ronaldo: football fantasy personified.
Real Madrid’s latest superstar, by his own admission, had not been the player even he had expected in these finals. Until now.
Ronaldo scored both Portugal’s goals, hit the posts twice and was denied as many goals again only by the greed or wilful blindness of team-mates – notably Nani – who preferred to shoot themselves when The Man was better placed.
This may prove Portugal’s Achilles heel against the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals. Paulo Bento’s men should have defeated hapless Holland far more decisively. Holland might even have snatched what would been an utterly undeserved draw.
When Ronaldo is in the mood evinced in Kharkiv then he is a power of which every other team who reached these finals can only dream.
Ronaldo is not everyone’s favourite. He has certain stylistic mannerisms and an air of arrogance which do not always endear him. But when in form – running, dribbling, teasing, tormenting – he is a work of wicked art.
Graham Taylor, the former England manager working here for BBC Radio, summed it up neatly: “I’m disappointed whenever he lays off the ball, even if it’s to someone better placed.”
Kharkiv, against Holland, saw the original mesmeric Ronaldo.
In the first half he hit the outside of a post, had a header superbly stopped by Maarten Stekelenburg, scored Portugal’s equalising goal at 1-1, drew a panicky punched save from the keeper and dived a header inches wide.
In the second half he had one shot blocked, set up an ‘offside goal’ for Helder Postiga, ran half the pitch to set up Fabio Coentrao for a shot which was saved, set up the easiest chance of the entire finals which Nani somehow managed to miss . . . then showed his Manchester United successor how it should be done with a magisterially-despatched winner in the 74th minute.
In the last moments Ronaldo even hit a post again. He was not so much the man of the match as a man above the match.
Certainly above the depressing, disappointing Dutch. They lost all three games; as if nemesis had at last punished them for that insult to the World Cup Final of two years ago.
Coach Bert Van Marwijk, against his own better instincts to judge from his earlier choices, started with both Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Robin Van Persie. Rafael Van der Vaart was brought in to keep the Dutchmen flying forward too and even opened the scoring after only 11 minutes.
Once Portugal had levelled – Ronaldo, of course – in the 28th minute, the Dutch subsided. Spirit and shape disintegrated. The fact that they could have snatched a draw right at the end – Van Persie missed horribly, Van der Vaart hit a post – was due only to Portuguese profligacy.
Portugal now go to Warsaw to face the Czechs, as they did 16 years ago in the quarter-finals at Euro 96. Then the Czechs won 1-0. But Portugal had no-one to compare with Ronaldo today.
The other quarter-final, in Gdansk, sees Germany face Greece in Gdansk.
Sport holding up a mirror not only to itself but to politics, too.
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