WARSAW: Wise old sages insist that, in football as in every sport, what goes around comes around. That is, fortune evens itself out in the long term
Euro 2012 is proving the point. England, wrongly robbed of a goal in the 2010 World Cup, were wrongly saved by a linesman’s error, from conceding one against Ukraine.
Portugal needed rather longer to make amends for their first defeat by the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals: 16 years in fact. The Czechs had won their Euro 96 meeting and it took the Portuguese all this time to balance the books.
The player who proved decisive was Cristiano Ronaldo who was just 11 back in 1996. Now, grown up into Europe’s finest footballer, he provided the flying 79th-minute header which exacted revenge for a childhood memory of disappointment.
That the Czechs even reached the quarter-finals was remarkable considering that they had lost their initial Group A game against an apparently vastly superior Russia by 4-1. But the Czechs proved to be made of sterner stuff than the Russians who had already left for home by the time referee Howard Webb signalled kickoff in the knockout stage.
Knockout football is rarely seen. Even the European club knockout stages are played over two legs. Hence it appeared to take both teams all of the first half to come to terms with the necessity to play a different kind of football to that demanded in the group stages.
The knockout stages are a high-wire act without a safety net. Thus it was not until the 24th minute that Ronaldo burst into life for the first time, exchanging passes with Joao Moutinho, only to be foiled by keeper Petr Cech.
In fact, English referee Howard Webb had already awarded a free kick against Ronaldo for pushing a defender aside.
That first hint of Portuguese danger had sharpened up intent on both sides. Both Nani and Miguel Veloso were booked in quick succession before Ronaldo weighed in again. First came an acrobatic bicycle kick whose connection flew narrowly wide of the one post then his long free kick rumbled the wrong side of the other.
The need to replace injured spearhead Helder Postiga with Hugo Almeida appeared as substitute did not upset the Portuguese rhythm.
Ronaldo went even closer to an opening goal when he took a left-wing cross on his chest, swivelled and, all in one flowing movement, stabbed his shot against Cech’s left-hand post.
Just after half-time he hit Cech’s left-hand post again. A 40m free kick was blocked by a hand in the wall; Ronaldo tried again from 30m and the ball flew beyond Cech, diving to his left, and clipped the outside of that battered left-hand post.
Ronaldo half-volleyed over the bar, Nani forced a diving stop from Cech and Almeida had a headed ‘goal’ disallowed for offside before Vaclav Pilar, for the Czechs, crossed the halfway line for about the first time in second half with almost an hour gone.
The goal had to come . . . and it did, in the 79th minute. Nani crossed from the right and, this time, Ronaldo was unbeatably on target with a flying header. His third goal made him the tournament’s joint top scorer.
Golden oldies Luis Figo and Eusebio hugged each other in delight in the VIP box.
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