KEIR RADNEDGE in MARSEILLE —- Cristiano Ronaldo or Robert Lewandowski? Euro 2016 had been waiting for its highly-expensive strikers to light up the fire of the tournament. But in the end it all came down to penalties, with Portugal winning 5-3 in a shootout in the Stade Veldrome after the first quarter-final of Euro 2016 ended 1-1 after extra time.
Both Ronaldo and Lewandowski converted their own kicks after the Pole had opened the scoring inside the first two minutes of the match. Portugal had pulled level through teenage talent Renato Sanches before half-time and the match gradually ground down to the shootout. Jakub Blaszczykowski had Poland’s fourth kick saved by Rui Patricio and Portuguese super-sub Ricardo Quaresma put away the decider.
Ronaldo could thus celebrate even if he did not score in open play himself. It would have been no consolation for Lewanowski that he ended on the losing side after scoring his first goal of the finals in a remarkable one minute 40 seconds of the quarter-final.
Portugal rightback Cedric misjudged a raking crossfield ball which bounced over him, Kamil Grosicki raced into the penalty box and squared for Lewandowski to rifle home with the ruthless style so familiar to his Bayern Munich fans.
Lewandowski’s goal was the second-fastest in Euro finals, after the 67-second strike by Russia’s Dmitri Kirichenko against Greece in 2004.
The stakes had been ramping up with every game, espcially now with the one-off prize of a place in the last four on offer. This, for Portugal, was nothing new but for Poland, who had never won a match in the finals until this tournament, the opportunity beckoning was an international breakthrough.
Portugal, playing with more fluency than in any of their previous games, immediately set about pursuing a remedy but found Poland ready for them, covering quickly and drilled to close down Ronaldo whenever he threatened to unleash a shot. Twice in the first 10 minutes he had efforts thus blocked to the relief of a capacity crowd overwhelmingly in support of the Poles.
Ronaldo was unlucky to be denied a penalty, however, on he halfhour when he was pushed in the back by Michal Pazdan while awaiting a cross. But a goal was coming, ironically, from Lewanowdowski’s new Bayern team-mate Renato Sanches.
The 18-year-old demonstrated why the German champions have paid €35m to Benfica with a deft exchange of passes on right and a left-foot drive aided by a slight deflection off Grzegorz Krychowiak.
The goal upset the Poles’ matchplan. They played the ball around after that as if desperate to reach half-time and take on board fresh instructions from coach Adam Nawalka.
Portugal now stationed Sanches wide on the right, as if having decided that this was where Poland were most vulnerable . Yet fhe Poles also proved vulnerable to a swift incursion on the Portuguese left, engineered by Nani. Fortunately for keeper Lukasz Fabianski Ronaldo screwed his shot into the side net.
The Portuguese remained largely in command. Poland sparked to life occasionally up the wings but Lewandowski must have wondered where his next shooting opportunity would come from. Fabianski had another scare when a 25-yarder from Cedric arrowed just wide of his right-hand post.
Both coaches started to ring the changes while Portugal continued to doninate possession. Joao Moutinho arrived in midfield and Ricardo Quaresma in attack.
Ronaldo could have settled it in normal time, slipping clear of the Polish defence but misjudging, and missing altogether, a delicate through ball from Moutinho. Thus Portugal, as against Croatia in the second round, found themselves again bound for extra time . . . and then on to penalties.
Poland thus went home unbeaten but having scored only four goals, while conceding two, in their five games. The fortune they enjoyed in the second round shootout victory over Switzerland deserted them this time.
Hence Portugal continued to the semi-finals despite their own inability to win any of their five matches yet inside 90 minutes.