Mark O’Haire’s Euro Tips – Portugal v Wales
Portugal v Wales
The media might be keen to bill Wednesday night’s Euro 2016 semi-final as Cristiano Ronaldo v Gareth Bale but Portugal’s contest with Wales promises much more than the two most expensive footballers on the planet going head-to-head in Lyon.
Portugal v Wales, Wednesday 6th July 2016, 20.00, ITV1 & RTE2
Welsh boss Chris Coleman stressed before the Dragons’ quarter-final victory over Belgium that there was more to come from this team and the head coach was rewarded with the greatest night in their football history as they came from a goal down to convincingly secure their place in the final-four.
Wales become the first team to reach the semi-final on their European Championship debut since Sweden in 1992. A breathless first-half saw Belgium and Wales go in level at one apiece but The Dragons’ celebrations reached stratospheric levels when Hal Robson-Kanu, a striker without a club, gave them the lead with a divine turn and finish and substitute Sam Vokes completed the triumph late on.
Absent from major tournaments for 58 years, Wales have not only ended a barren half a century but propelled Welsh football into unchartered territory. The “Together Stronger” motto was never more evident as the team spirit that Coleman and his side have spoken of throughout their time together in France came to the fore in memorable post-match celebrations.
Bale was again a key figure having already scored three times in the group stages. The Real Madrid forward worked industriously throughout, but others eclipsed his efforts such as Ashley Williams, who scored despite a shoulder injury, which made him a doubt for the game.
Aaron Ramsey was Wales’ creative heart – setting up two of the three goals – and it is a crushing blow that both the Arsenal midfielder and Ben Davies will miss this semi-final after picking up a second tournament booking. Jonny Williams, Andy King or Dave Edwards could replace Ramsey whilst James Collins may deputise for Davies here.
Wales’ odds-defying run at Euro 2016, after languishing as low as 117th in the world rankings in 2011, has seen The Dragons notch 10 goals – only once has a British team scored more at a major tournament (England, 11 in World Cup 1966). And only hosts France (11) have scored more in this competition.
Nevertheless, Ramsey’s absence – he’s played a key role in five of the last eight Welsh goals excluding own goals – is a major blow to the 3/1 underdogs’ prospects on Wednesday night.
Portugal Press On
Opponents Portugal reached the semi-finals of the European Championship for the fourth time in five tournaments thanks to a penalty shootout victory over Poland. Remarkably, The Selecao have progressed to the final-four without winning a game in normal time following three draws in a group in which they finished third and an extra-time win over Croatia in the last 16.
No nation has ever got this far in a European Championship without winning a match inside 90 minutes and Fernando Santos’ squad have also only led a match for 22 minutes during the whole tournament. However, for a second dour and conservative knockout game running, Portugal did what was required when it mattered.
For much of the game against Poland, the overriding image of Ronaldo was of him slapping his thigh and screaming towards the French sky in frustration. Barring a few exceptional moments – his two goals against Hungary and assisting Ricardo Quaresma’s winner to see off Croatia – this has been a disappointing tournament for the finest European player of his generation.
Ronaldo was barely recognisable from the figure who has terrorised defences across the continent for more than a decade as a series of scuffed and miscued strikes took him from 31 to 36 efforts for the tournament without an addition to his two group-stage goals. He’s now bagged just two goals in 13 knockout games at major tournaments.
Collectively Portugal have struggled to find attacking fluency at Euro 2016. But their greater tournament nous has already seen them edge out Croatia and Poland, and the bookmakers make them 6/5 favourites to once again play the role of party poopers here.
Unbeaten in 12 competitive fixtures under Santos (W7-D5-L0) – all eight of their wins coming by a single-goal margin,
the Iberians have also averaged seven shots more per-game than Wales and conceding three fewer per-game in France this summer, perhaps justifying their price.
However, this is the seventh time they have reached this stage at a World Cup or European Championship, but only once before have they advanced to the final – on home soil at Euro 2004. And with holding midfielder William Carvalho suspended, Danilo is expected to be handed the role of shackling Bale whilst Pepe (arguably one the best performing centre-halves at Euro 2016) is doubtful.
Both teams operate in similar systems and prefer to play on the break with a superstar taking ownership of attacking responsibility and although Wales’ fairytale run has impressed immensely, Portugal’s experience could pay dividends in a slow-burning encounter.
I’m unprepared to enter the goals markets here – four of Portugal’s five fixtures have fallen below the 2.5 goals line with two in four shirking 1.5 as well. Meanwhile four of Wales’ five matches so far have yielded over 2.5 goals, with three of both Portugal and Wales’ five matches featuring both sides scoring.
However, since 2002, 34 of the 53 (64%) quarter-finals, semi-finals or finals at European Championship or World Cup finals have been level at half-time and that seems the safest play here. It paid out in both of the knockout stage matches these two sides have played and is 20/23 to repeat.
But I’m also going to invest faith in pre-match favourites Portugal securing progression after a half-time stalemate at 15/4 (Draw-Portugal) with the 5/1 available on a 1-0 success also standing out. The emotional exertions in The Dragons’ camp from a sapping competition could see the Welsh struggle to match their performance levels against Belgium, especially with Ramsey unavailable.
Half-Time Result – Draw (20/23)
Half-Time/Full-Time – Draw-Portugal (15/4)
Portugal to win 1-0 (5/1)
*Prices correct at time of publication