21 June 2012

Czech Republic 0-1 Portugal

Ronaldo 79'

Midway through the first half, this game turned on its head. The Czechs were impressive early on – 55% possession, 9 crosses into the box (of their 11 total), 5 corners (of their 6 total), but no shots on goal. Unfortunately, that advantage didn't last long. The Czechs attempted 124 passes in the first 23 minutes. They attempted just 184 in the next 70. 79% completed over those first 23 minutes, just 61% completed after. Once Portugal woke up, it was all Portugal all the time, and only a matter of time until Portugal opened the scoring. And once Portugal woke up, this was as one-sided as a 1-0 win can be, only that close because of some excellent Czech defending and a bit of luck from the goal frame.

The key to Portugal seesawing the match was getting its midfield trio on the ball. Meireles, Moutinho, and Veloso were all excellent, wholly out-matching Darida, Plašil, and Hübschman, a 4-1-2-3 completely on top of a 4-2-3-1 – a better holding midfielder, and the two more-attacking midfielders either out-numbering their counterparts or forcing the other midfielder – whether Darida or Plašil – to drop far deeper into defense than he's comfortable.

It's no coincidence that Veloso and Moutinho were also Portugal's top tackle-winners – Veloso with 5 of 5, Moutinho 3 of 3 – and with the most interceptions – Moutinho 3, Veloso 2, the only Portuguese players with more than one.

I thought Meireles' play was especially clever, most likely by planned design. His decision-making still left something to be desired, specifically his propensity to shoot wildly from the parking lot, but his movement was outstanding. He mostly played on the right side on midfield in the three group games, but was parked on the left today. His movement out to that flank to help pin back the dangerous Gebre-Selassie and overload that zone along with Coentrão and Ronaldo.

Of course, rather than the midfield trio, Ronaldo will get the headlines. The poster boy, the goalscorer, the most ubiquitous threat. He single-handedly created all of Portugal's first half chances – a fierce shot saved by Čech called back for a foul anyway, a bicycle kick whistling wide of the near post, a free kick sailing wide of the far post, and then clever control, turn, and a shot off the post seconds before the interval.

Almeida's introduction for Helder Postiga also helped shift the game. Portugal would have preferred not to make the change, with Postiga stretchered off in the 41st minute after a hamstring injury. Almeida, who hadn't played a minute in this tournament until that point, is more of a target man, another threat on crosses who demands more attention from a center-back.

And Portugal clearly favored crosses as the primary mode of attack, little surprise with players like Nani (6), Meireles (7), Coentrão (7), and Ronaldo (3) in the line-up.

With 36 crosses in total and near-total possession after the turning point midway through the first half, Portugal were bound to score from one of them. Only Liverpool can take that many crosses without converting at least once.

The first chance after the restart came from yet another of those opportunities – Meireles storming down the left flank, but Almeida misdirecting his header wide. From there, it remained the Ronaldo show, again hitting the post, shooting over, and heading over. Nani and Meireles added off-target efforts, while Čech brilliantly saved Moutinho's shot from distance in the 64th.

There was little the Czechs could do to stem the tide. They prefer to play on the counter-attack, but Portugal rarely allowed any counter-attacks. Bilek replaced Darida on the hour mark, sending on Rezak to man the right flank, allowing Jiráček – the Czechs' best player in Rosický's absence – to play in the hole, but the Portuguese – specifically Veloso – rarely let him sniff the ball. Baroš' blast from distance, created by dropping deep into space made by Jiráček's movement between the lines, was the Czechs' only shot of the half. One of their two shots in the match.

Still, the Czechs defended well, and while Portugal's onslaught was unceasing and a goal frequently felt inevitable, the goal required outstanding work from all involved in its creation. The biggest surprise was that the cross came from the right rather than the left. Nani's layoff split the winger and left-back, perfectly placed for Moutinho's charge forward. One touch around the flat-footed Plašil, getting to the byline before sending the cross in. Ronaldo's movement and header were just as impressive, aided by Gebre-Selassie's ball-watching. Waiting until the last possible moment to cut in from the left, darting in front of the right-back, then an unsaveable diving header downward, bouncing over Čech into the roof of the net. Just an excellently-worked, if deeply unlikable, goal.

Portugal, reaching the semi-finals for the third time in the last four Euros, will face the winner of France v Spain. And will be in a good position to challenge either side. Both of those teams prefer to dominate possession, which will allow Portugal to counter quickly if they can keep the opposition from breaking through. Neither of those teams have aerially dominant center-backs – Spain's are obviously better than France's – or especially defensive full-backs. Portugal's three-man midfield is well-designed to counter Spain's impressive troika, and the Spaniards will assuredly remember the difficult match against Portugal at the previous World Cup.

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