First Look: Portugal vs. Wales in Euro 2016 semifinals
Raise your hand if you had this semifinal pairing in your Euro 2016 prediction bracket.
The competition's first semifinal is set, and it's an enticing, albeit surprising one, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal will take on Gareth Bale and Wales on Wednesday in Lyon.
Wales and Portugal haven't met since a friendly in 2000, won by Portugal 3-0. Their only other two meetings came in a pair of friendlies in 1949 and 1951, split by the two sides. That history will matter little when they meet again. Wales is rivaling Iceland for the underdog story of the competition, while Portugal hasn't exactly overwhelmed, yet has reached the cusp of returning to the title match for the first time since 2004. The two Real Madrid stars will be at the center of this clash, but the matchup is about so much more.
Here are a few opening thoughts on the Portugal vs. Wales Euro semifinal:
The Real Madrid superstar showdown
Real Madrid teammates Ronaldo and Bale go mano-a-mano for the right to lead their nations to the promised land and for each of them to do the Champions League-Euro double.
While the two have coexisted and starred together in the Spanish capital, the 26-year-old Bale is often looked upon as Ronaldo's eventual replacement as the star attraction at the Bernabeu, whenever he moves on.
He's provided with the chance here to not only show that he can be Ronaldo's equal, but he can do him one better and lift his country to the cusp of a trophy that Ronaldo has never lifted.
He's already outshone Ronaldo in the competition on an individual level when it comes to impact over the course of all five games. Bale's two free-kick goals (Ronaldo, meanwhile, has failed to score on 41 consecutive free kicks in major competitions), three in total and a cross that forced the decisive own goal in the quarterfinals are contrasted by Ronaldo's misfires against Iceland and Austria, his heroic two-goal showing against Hungary, his role in the winner against Croatia and his PK conversion against Poland.
Then there's the matter of body language and overall leadership. Ronaldo has run the gamut of on-field emotions, and while he's ultimately stepped up when called upon in times of need to fulfill the duties of the captain's armband, it doesn't seem as if his emotions are nearly as infectious and influential as those of Bale. He has become the symbol of Wales's underdog success, and not just because of his play on the field.
If only Karim Benzema were on France's roster, it'd be possible that Real Madrid's whole B-B-C line could be starring in the semifinals. What happened there again? Oh. Right. That.
Both of these teams are about way more than just their centerpiece attractions, but they command the spotlight, and they'll have the opportunity to relish in it come Wednesday.
History beckons for one
Either way, one team will be one step away from its first major international trophy.
Wales hasn't had a sniff of this stage on the international level, failing to qualify for every World Cup since 1958 and every European Championship, period. Its 1958 run to the quarterfinals was ended by a 17-year-old Pele, and since then it's been a black hole of misery until reaching its first major semifinal ever.
Portugal, meanwhile, has had far more success than either on the World Cup and Euro stages (it's reached at least the quarterfinals in six straight Euro tournaments), but still hasn't managed to finish the job. In fact, Portugal is nearly 12 years to the day from falling at home in the Euro 2004 final to surprise champion Greece. For a nation that has always seemed to boast a transcendent talent, whether it be Eusebio, Luis Figo or Ronaldo, it has constantly underachieved on the international stage.
Even its run to these semifinals is not without caveats. Portugal hasn't beaten anyone within 90 minutes (to be fair, it has not lost either), it needed a come-from-behind effort and penalty kicks to oust Poland in the quarterfinals and finished third in its group–behind Hungary and Iceland. Without the competition expansion to 24 teams, Portugal wouldn't be in this position at all. That said, tournaments are all about surviving, advancing and seizing opportunities. Another one is there for the taking for Ronaldo and his teammates.
The ridiculous card accumulation rule kills Wales
Vital Wales starters Ben Davies and Aaron Ramsey will miss the semifinal after receiving their second yellow cards of the competition, tilting the scales heavily into Portugal's favor. Davies has been a linchpin on the three-man back line, while Ramsey has played at an extremely high level, evidenced by his role in setting up Hal Robson-Kanu's eventual winner vs. Belgium.
Simply put, the rule is absurd, asinine and very influential on how this competition plays out. Two cards across five games shouldn't cost a player a semifinal. When the competition expanded to 24 teams and added an extra round, it failed to take into account the accumulation rule. Either reset the booking list after the group stage or after the quarterfinals. How hard is that? If a player picks up cards in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals, sure, he should miss the semis.
Italy has 11 players sitting on yellows entering its quarterfinal vs. Germany. If the Azzurri go through, they might be as shorthanded as anyone.
Portugal is affected as well, as William Carvalho will be forced to miss out, but he's not nearly as irreplaceable and Portugal has ample depth in the position.
Early advantage, at least on paper: Portugal.