Cristiano Ronaldo is by far the best player in this Portugal side. He is also probably the reason why it so consistently under-performs. For 45 minutes, everything was going well for the Portuguese. They had played extremely well in the first half of their Euro 2016 opener and gone ahead through Nani. Iceland looked like the minnow it is. And then Portugal disintegrated. Iceland celebrated a 1-1 draw–secured through Birkir Bjarnason’s 51st-minute volley–with understandable uproariousness, but this was a take of Portugal’s collapse.
It was as though it believed the game was won by halftime. The second half began with a flurry of tricks and flicks, a bizarre show of complacency. Iceland, having barely threatened, capitalized on the slackest of defending to level. At that point, Portugal lost all shape and discipline. It became a collection of individuals, each trying to score the winner alone. And the biggest culprit of all was the man who, in fairness, probably could have won the game alone, Ronaldo.
There is an enduring sense that neither of the two greatest players of the age, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, have really–really–shone in international tournaments. That may say something about the relative value of the national and club games–and it certainly says something about the expectations on the pair, who have both had perfectly reasonable tournaments–but if Ronaldo, now 31, is to inspire Portugal to something remarkable, he probably has to do it here or at the World Cup in Russia in two years.
It took 20 minutes for Ronaldo really to sparkle vs. Iceland, but a quick sashay took him by Ari Freyr Skulason and he stood up a cross to the back post where Nani’s close range header hit the legs of the goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorson. Ronaldo, with a typical disregard for the conventions of modesty, had said after the World Cup that Portugal’s problem was that there is only one of him, but when a Pepe ball over the top offered a volleying opportunity midway through the half, his missed his kick entirely.
Portugal’s problem from the birth of the golden generation at the Under-20 World Cup in 1989 has been its inability score goals. Although there have been hatfuls of top-class attacking midfielders, it’s been decades since Portugal produced a truly high-class striker. Here, it began with Nani and Ronaldo as twin forwards with Joao Moutinho as a central creative presence just behind them. It was Nani who made the breakthrough, with Andre Gomes playing a one-two with Vierinha down the right and capping an 11-pass move by crossing for the Fenerbahce forward to sweep in for his fourth goal in his last eight national-team games.
The sense, though, is that, Ronaldo aside, the strength of this Portugal side may be its midfield, with Danilo holding and Andre Gomes and Joao Mario shuttling either side of him. They’re all aged between 22 and 24 and represent a bright future.
At halftime, Portugal had looked better-balanced and more fluid than any team so far other than Italy. It didn't last.
Gylfi Sigurdsson had drawn a fine save from Rui Patricio after three minutes but thereafter its attacking presence had been almost non-existent. Portugal, perhaps, became complacent. There were tricks and flicks where none were justified. And then, quite abruptly, Iceland equalized.
Bjarnason pulled off the back of Vierinha. and when Birkir Mar Saevarsson crossed, he volleyed in. The defending was dreadful, with no pressure on either the crosser or scorer, but that was never going to diminish the celebration of Iceland’s first goal at a major tournament. It’s estimated around 8% of the entire population of Iceland was in Saint Etienne for the game, even if fewer than half of them got into the stadium.
From there, Portugal's response was meager. Ronaldo scuffed a volley wide two minutes into the second half and there was a wildly speculative and wasteful long-range effort after 72 minutes but he was involved only sporadically, effectively neutralized by Kari Arnason, who joined Malmo last summer from Rotherham.
There was no obvious sign of the fitness issues that, despite all the denials, seemed apparent in the Champions League final, but equally Ronaldo didn’t seem anywhere near full sharpness. The positive for Portugal is that in the first half it was able to play well with its best player not being anywhere near his best. The bad news is that in the second half he had sunk into increasingly sulky self-indulgence. A ridiculous 45-yard effort from a free kick was the nadir.
In the final seconds, Portugal won a free-kick 36 yards out. Ronaldo lined it up. It hit a hand in the wall, affording another chance, 26 yards out. He hit the wall again and the full-time whistle went. It was an apt way to finish. Iceland rejoiced, but Portugal should never have let this game slip.