Two goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and one from Nani helped Portugal qualify alongside Group F winners Hungary after a frantic, fantastic game in Lyon.
“We draw together, we miss penalties together, today we win together,” said the banner high up in the stands here before kick-off. Even as he evolves into more and more of a penalty-area predator, such thinking is anathema to Cristiano Ronaldo. On Wednesday, he embraced his habitual position for Portugal of carrying the load single-handedly when others shrink, ensuring his jittery team did the necessary by scraping a thrilling draw against Bernd Storck’s lively Hungary.
So it is the Hungarians, the outsiders, who win Group F, and deservedly so, after a mercurial game befitting the suddenly scorching heat in Lyon. Yet Ronaldo’s top billing is equally merited after his two-goal salvo. One game after setting a new appearance record for Portugal, beating Luis Figo’s tally of 127, Ronaldo became the first player to score in four European Championships. He also set a tournament appearance record of 17 here, a tribute to the fact that his brilliance is more than paralleled by his incredible perseverance.
“A forward like Cristiano without goals feels like he hasn’t had anything to eat,” said the Portugal coach, Fernando Santos. Ronaldo never takes no for an answer, which is fortunate. As Santos admitted, “we were on the way home three times”.
Portugal had not lost in 10 previous meeting with the Magyars, dating back to 1926, but after a bright opening, found themselves in trouble from Hungary’s first meaningful attack. A corner was cleared to Zoltan Gera on the edge of the area and the former West Bromwich Albion and Fulham midfielder had time and space to chest it down and slam an immaculate half-volley past goalkeeper Rui Patrício.
The 37-year-old, now back home with Ferencvaros after a decade in the Premier League, has had his moments but this was “one of the best,” he said after the game. “I’m not a young boy anymore,” he smiled, “so every game is a gift for me.”
In the immediate wake of Gera’s goal it nearly got much worse for Portugal, with Patrício sprawling to block from Akos Elek four minutes later as his defence hoped for an offside flag that never came. By the half-hour Hungary were knocking the ball around merrily to “olés” from their impressively sized support.
Ronaldo was reprising his role as the frustrated figure of Portugal’s opening two matches, limited to a couple of those familiar free-kick pot shots; one pushed away comfortably enough by Gabor Kiraly, the other looping harmlessly over the goalkeeper’s crossbar. Yet he found a way, emerging in the less likely role of provider in the 42nd minute as his sublime pass cut out four defenders and allowed Nani – Portugal’s most dangerous player in the first half – to drive the equaliser past Kiraly at his near post.
Santos introduced 18-year-old midfielder Renato Sanches for the off-colour João Moutinho at the break, but his best-laid plans quickly went up in smoke. The Hungary captain Balazs Dzsudzsak – an authentic striker of a dead ball if ever there was one – curled a free-kick towards goal which took a big deflection off André Gomes’ shoulder and flew past Patrício.
Just as in the first half, Hungary nearly reinforced their advantage immediately, with Gergo Lovrencsics driving into the side-netting. Instead, Portugal were level a minute later, with Ronaldo applying a tidy rabona finish at the near post to João Mário’s right-wing cross.
Nani was inches away from giving Portugal the lead in a breakneck opening to the second period when Dzsudzsak struck again in similar fashion to his first goal, smashing a left-footer in via a deflection off Nani after his free-kick was charged down. There were still only 10 minutes of the second period gone.
Santos made a necessarily daring change, introducing Ricardo Quaresma for Gomes on the hour, and his impact was instant, with the Besiktas winger presenting his former Sporting team-mate Ronaldo with a simple header via a delicious cross from the left.
By this point Portugal’s defence was a panicked shambles, with Elek hitting the inside of the post after another counter as the Magyars played with the freedom of the already qualified, despite resting four players on yellow cards, including the impressive young midfielder Adam Nagy. It seemed that Santos’s team’s only hope of ending this flirtation with a humiliating exit was playing the game in Hungary’s half, and both Ronaldo and Quaresma came close to putting them in front again.
As the crowd took a much-needed breather and the game entered its last 10 minutes, Santos finally made his first concession to circumspection, replacing Nani with an extra defensive anchor in Porto’s Danilo Pereira, knowing that a point would see his side through come what may. Portugal progress in third after Iceland’s last-gasp winner against Austria but like England, who they would be facing if it were not for that goal, must quickly find their own identity. – The Guardian.