Moments after Ashley Williams had put him on the floor with an early challenge of crushing intent, Cristiano Ronaldo found the arm of James Collins wrapped around his neck. Collins had not started a competitive game for three months and could not command a regular place in the West Ham defence towards the end of the season. But his robust approach troubled Ronaldo both in that first exchange and throughout the first-half.
Ahead of the game, Ronaldo had playfully congratulated an opportunistic ball boy who had tried to muscle in on Portugal’s team photo. But it seemed the Real Madrid star had taken his ‘softer side’ into the game. Dominated by 6ft 3in Collins, he spent much time remonstrating with the referee about the treatment he was receiving.
He couldn’t win anything in the air and struggled to make anything happen with the ball on the ground. The ‘arms akimbo’ look is one the 31-year-old has mastered when wearing the Portugal shirt and it appeared with astonishing regularity in the first 45 minutes.
But Ronaldo is no shrinking violet. Long gone are the days of the precocious prima donna with fragile physique and blonde highlights in his hair, throwing himself to the ground at the faintest touch. It was once his weakness, but Ronaldo’s physicality is now what makes him one of the world’s most potent players. His strength can be his most devastating asset; at half-time, he seemed to remember that.
Within five minutes of the restart Ronaldo had lined up for a corner against 5ft 8in James Chester, himself just a slight-of-frame academy graduate when the pair first came face to face at Manchester United in 2008. One can easily imagine a ruthless Ronaldo beating Chester in the air at United’s Carrington training ground, showing him what life was like as a first-team player.
And in this Euro 2016 semi-final, Chester became just another victim of Ronaldo’s aerial supremacy, the Portuguese forward bullying him off the ball before burying a thunderous header past Wayne Hennessey. It was a ninth European Championship goal, putting him level with Frenchman Michel Platini as the tournament’s all-time leading scorer.
Just two minutes later, Portugal snatched a decisive second and Ronaldo was instrumental again, his shot-cum-cross falling kindly at the feet of Nani, who prodded home.
It was billed as the clash of Ronaldo vs Gareth Bale but while Wales’ No. 11 showed glimpses of greatness, it was his team-mate who really demonstrated just how influential he can be. When the pair last met in a competitive fixture, Ronaldo was the match-winner as Real Madrid downed Bale’s Tottenham in the Champions League quarter-finals. This time the prize is far greater.
Ronaldo has not been especially impressive at Euro 2016, so often seeming like a Portuguese passenger rather than pilot. But he has now twice taken the controls here in Lyon. It was at the Stade de Lyon that he netted twice against Hungary to drag Portugal into the last-16 and now he has, quite remarkably, taken this ordinary-looking team into the Euro 2016 final.
For him, it is particularly poignant. Ronaldo and Ricardo Carvalho are the only members of this Portugal squad who suffered heartbreak on home soil in Euro 2004. As a tearful teenager he watched Greece lift the trophy and now, playing for a coach who spent much of his career in Greece, in a team that oozes the pragmatism of that famous Greek side, Ronaldo is within touching distance of emulating them.
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