It has become increasingly possible to imagine Portugal with their name on the Euro 2016 trophy. After three draws in the group phase and a grubby last 16 win over Croatia, following extra-time, they entered this quarter-final having not played particularly well but having played well enough.
Fernando Santos’s team deserved to win here, having been the better team for most of the game and, when it came down to penalties, they made sure that they advanced into a semi-final against either Wales or Belgium. After the Poland winger, Jakub Blaszczykowski, saw his kick saved by Rui Patrício at full stretch, the Portugal substitute Ricardo Quaresma beat Lukasz Fabianski to spark delirium.
Portugal had responded positively to the early concession to Robert Lewandowski and, but for a clutch of misses by Cristiano Ronaldo, they might have won earlier. Ronaldo mis-kicked, air-kicked and mis-controlled when well placed.
Poland had advanced to this tie after beating Switzerland on penalties but their luck ran out here. They had sensed the opportunity to make history and reach their first semi-final at a major finals since the 1982 World Cup but it was Portugal, who equalised through Renato Sanches, the 18-year-old who has just signed for Bayern Munich, who imposed themselves.
Fernando Santos, the Portugal manager, had referenced The Gordian Knot in connection to his team’s tortuous 1-0 win over Croatia in the last 16 and, with neither side having previously set the tournament alight with their attacking football, there had been the fear of an attritional contest.
Instead the tie was shaped within 100 seconds, when Robert Lewandowski scored the second-fastest goal in the competition’s history. The prolific Bayern Munich striker had been due a goal, after drawing blanks and suffering from the suffocating and frequently illegal tactics of his markers.
There was not much space for him here inside the Portugal penalty area but it was enough and, when Kamil Grosicki cut back a low cross, Lewandowski demonstrated his predatory instincts, steering a firm side-foot into the near corner. The finish was defined by precision and timing. Grosicki had found the space to cross after Cédric Soares had misjudged the bounce of a cross-field ball.
Portugal had brought the calibre, with their extraordinary record at this tournament. They have never failed to advance from the group phase; no other nation can match their six quarter-final appearances and they had reached the semi-finals at three of the previous four competitions.
Santos’s formation was essentially 4-3-3, with William Carvalho sitting deep in front of the back four and the five players ahead of him interchanging positions. Ronaldo played on the left and he played on the right, while he also popped up in the middle.
The game benefitted from the early goal; the shackles appeared to come off and there was some nice football from both teams. Portugal had advertised the equaliser for 1-1 and it came when Nani’s cute flick found Sanches.
Santos had previously kept Sanches on the bench at this tournament but he could resist his starting claims no longer. Sanches has quick feet and wonderful balance, and he got his team back into contention with a touch and thumping left-footed shot from the edge of the area, which beat Lukasz Fabianski via a deflection off Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Poland threatened on the counter-attack in the first half and Lewandowski worked Rui Patrício with one low shot. There was also the lovely move on 23 minutes that finished with Artur Jedrzejczyk sliding a pass for Grosicki but his cross was hacked to safety by José Fonte. Jedrzejczyk would later be booked for a cynical pull on William Carvalho, which meant that he would miss a semi-final through suspension.
Portugal showed courage and trademark technique, and Ronaldo had their best two moments while they trailed 1-0. After Michal Pazdan tried to nick Nani’s pass from him and failed, a chance opened up but Ronaldo shot straight at Fabianski, while on the half-hour, he should have had a penalty when Pazdan barged into him as he attacked a cross.
Portugal’s formation also morphed into 4-1-3-2, they played on the front foot and there would be further chances for Ronaldo. From another Nani pass, and with João Mário available to him in the centre, he took on the shot and banged it into the side netting while on the hour, he mis-kicked from Nani’s cross. It was a presentable opportunity, and Ronaldo knew it. Cédric also fizzed a shot past the far post from distance.
Milik extended Rui Patrício but it was Portugal who looked the more threatening. Fonte headed at Fabianski while Jedrzejczyk had a heart-stopping moment on 81 minutes when he stretched to cut out Pepe’s pass, which had been intended for Ronaldo, and diverted the ball inches past the far post.
In extra time the spectre of penalties hung heavily, and it will be remembered principally for the moment a man charged onto the field from behind one of the goals and sprinted towards Ronaldo. The Real Madrid player side-stepped him and the invader was quickly brought to ground by a rugby tackle from one of the chasing stewards. Six of them lifted him up and removed him unceremoniously from the fray. A line of riot police then moved into position behind the goal. The penalties were taken in front of them. Portugal got the job done.