Four key issues that could decide Euro semi-final between Wales and Portugal
Cristiano v Gareth Bale has dominated the pre-match build up. But how will Wales cope without Aaron Ramsey? And can Hal Robson-Kanu repeat his heroics?
1. Ronaldo to rediscover finishing touch?
It is hard to believe that Cristiano Ronaldo will continue to be as profligate against Wales as he has been at other times in this tournament.
One of the joys of watching the Portuguese do his thing for Real Madrid is the calmness he displays in front of goal. You do not score 260 goals in 236 appearances for your club without knowing how to finish and his nonchalance when confronted with an opportunity to add to his numbers is one of his many strengths.
During the Euros he has been snatching at chances rather than letting the ball come to him as he would in the white of Madrid. This over-eagerness led him to spurn golden opportunities against Iceland, including dragging his penalty wide, and particularly against Poland in the last round when he would have had a hat-trick had the match been at the Bernabeu.
Strangely, the grabbiness that affected him in the first two games – both drawn - against Iceland and Austria seemed to have dissolved when he calmly scored twice against Hungary in the final hectic group match that eventually finished 3-3. His header was beautifully timed and his flick with the instep was a measure in calmness.
But the edginess and desperation to do well for Portugal, to elevate himself into the category of true greats who win titles with club and country, was back against the Poles when he produced one air shot (Ronaldo? An air shot?) when clean through and scuffed another golden chance.
Which Ronaldo will rock up against Wales? The Real striker with the freedom of past successes flooding through his veins or the Portugal one paralysed by the fear of a rare opportunity squandered.
2. How will Wales cope without Ramsey?
By his own high standards of two seasons ago when he started the campaign for Arsenal in glorious fashion, Aaron Ramsey had a mediocre time of it for Arsenal last term going 524.6 minutes per goal. That old snap and buzz seemed to have faded a tad but for Wales during these Euros he has been superb.
So his unavailability against Portugal is a hammer blow for Chris Coleman’s side. Fulham’s unheralded midfielder Jazz Richards looks the most likely candidate to come into the side – probably on the right with Chris Gunther moving into the back three for the suspended Ben Davies. They are alterations a side could do without in such a monumental game.
Ramsey’s bursts into the attacking third have been a key part of Wales’ success. It was his run and stumble that led to Hal Robson Kanu’s winning goal against Slovakia that set the ball rolling for Wales in the opening group game and he provided a divine finish and a cute assist during the Russian mauling. Whether Richards or other members of the Welsh midfield can provide similar moments remains to be seen.
3. Battle between Pepe v Hal Robson-Kanu
The Portugal centre-half Pepe is everyone’s favourite pantomime villain – and there is no doubt the Real player is a master of the dark arts of the game (he is not one for the obvious felony more the pickpocketing-type crime). His charge sheet - from feigning injury to stamping on fingers when no one is looking – is long. But he is a brilliant defender. And that often gets overlooked due to his devious side.
The way he marshalled his defence during the extra-time victory over the talent-packed Croatia side was a master-class – to keep a team with that much attacking threat goalless was some effort. And the Wales striker Hal Robson Kanu may have given him a drop of extra incentive by asking if Pepe was worried about marking him.
“I don't know how much he will be looking forward to playing against me,“ Robson-Kanu asked of Pepe. This is Pepe who plays regularly against Barcelona – who have a couple of decent strikers - so it is doubtful the clubless Robson-Kanu will have him quaking in is boots.
4. Renato Sanches to take focus off Ronaldo?
The 18-year-old, who has just joined Bayern Munich from Benfica for the small matter of £28m (and this fee could rise), started this competition among the Portugal substitutes. But his early cameos were so impressive that he had forced his way into the starting XI role by the time they met Poland in the round of 16 game.
And he paid back the trust of his manager Fernando Santos by scoring the equalising goal in the 1-1 draw. Although it took a tiny deflection it was a magic strike as he managed to find space in between the Polish back four and their two holding midfielders, picked up Nani’s backheel with his right foot and drilled in the shot with his left. It was a glimpse of his talent and Wales will focus on Ronaldo and ignore Sanches at their peril.
He is strong, quick and athletic and could, if given a nanosecond, settle this intriguing tie.
Independent News Service