Portugal hasn't overwhelmed anyone, but a path to the Euro 2016 final is opening up for Cristiano Ronaldo & Co.
For Cristiano Ronaldo, the dream is still alive. For the rest of us watching Portugal vs. Croatia in Euro 2016's round of 16, it was a nightmare of a match, not that anyone in Portugal will mind. When substitute Ricardo Quaresma headed the ball into the goal from one yard out, four minutes before the end of extra time, it came after the game’s first shot on goal. The final four minutes had more excitement than the previous 116, and they confirmed Portugal's 1-0 victory and place in the quarterfinals.
It began, like so many other goals this tournament, at the other end. Croatia, whose efforts on goal had been reduced to long, off-target shots, hit the post with Ivan Perisic’s header. It was the first time Croatia had committed players forward and Portugal was quick to respond; Renato Sanches led the counter, passed to Nani, whose defense-splitting pass found Ronaldo in space.
Ronaldo smashed his shot at Danijel Subasic, whose parry fell into the path of the joyful Quaresma. The winger made no mistake, but it was not quite game over. There was still time for Croatia to fashion one more chance, but Domagoj Vida hooked the ball just wide of the post with the last kick of the game, his third near-make of the day.
This was hardly an encounter to strike fear into quarterfinal opponents Poland. It was so cautious that it broke records: neither goalkeeper had a save to make in those opening 116 minutes. Considering Ronaldo alone hit 32 shots in the three group games, that takes some doing.
The last time he played for Real Madrid and did not have a shot on goal was back in May 2014.
England fans–and, according to reports, its coaching staff–were pleased to avoid Portugal at this stage after Iceland’s last-minute winner, but they might have wanted to reconsider (for many, not for the first time this week) after watching that display. This Portugal side is stodgier than it should be considering it has one of the world’s best players.
Ronaldo’s night was summed up after 80 minutes. He passed to William Carvalho as Portugal attacked toward the left side of the penalty area. Carvalho lofted a smart chipped ball over the top for Ronaldo to run onto, but for some reason the captain, who had been a willing runner all night, had stopped. For a moment, you wondered what Ronaldo’s reaction would be: a pout, a fist punched into the ground, or an encouraging clap? In the end, it was the latter.
It said it all that Ronaldo’s best header in the area came in his own box, when he cleared a late free kick from Ivan Rakitic. And yet, 12 years after appearing in the Euro 2004 final as a 19-year-old, weeping after Greece’s surprise victory, this surely represents his best chance of another final.
He has come close to a final a few times since, helping Portugal reach a World Cup semifinal for the first time, in 2006, after his quarterfinal penalty knocked out England. At Euro 2012, Ronaldo was left frustrated when Spain won their semifinal on penalties before the striker, who had chosen to kick fifth, could step up.
After Poland, Portugal would face Wales or the winner of Hungary vs. Belgium for a place in the Euro 2016 final. Talk about the draw opening up: Portugal has yet to beat a team inside 90 minutes in France, having drawn all three group games against Iceland, Austria and Hungary.
Ronaldo won’t care about that. He has already broken one record in France; his goals against Hungary made him the first player to score in four successive Euro tournaments. He also needs one more to equal the competition's all-time top scorer Michel Platini’s total of nine.
And then there is the small matter of Ronaldo's chief individual rival, Lionel Messi, playing in the Copa America final this weekend for Argentina against Chile.
As Messi closes in on an international title, how much would Ronaldo love to do the same?
After finishing third in its group, Portugal is now two games from the final. For Ronaldo, the prize is in sight. Yet Poland has little to fear.