They say football can sometimes be a cruel sport. That must be the feeling echoing around the Croatian camp after they lost to Portugal in the dying embers of a hard fought game which in truth they didn’t deserve to lose. They dominated possession, created more chances in a game short on clear cut chances and did almost enough to send the game to penalties at least.
Prematch talk of course was about how badly Portugal were performing in this tournament. With no win in all 3 group games, they squeezed their way through to the next stage as one of best 3rd placed teams on better goal difference – living to fight another day perhaps. Coach Fernando Santos made changes to the leaky backline that conceded 3 goals against Hungary. Jose Fonte and Cedric Soares making their tournament debut. Following their heroics against Spain in their final group game, Croatia were in confident mood, welcoming back midfield lynchpin Luka Modric to the starting eleven.
The game was set to be a high tempo one with each team going for it from the beginning.
The opening exchanges though left much to be desired. Croatia started the brighter of the two but did nothing noteworthy with the ball. It was as if they were playing not to lose and were comfortable to just play the cautious long game. Such has been the theme of this tournament so far but with the talents on show for both teams, the fans deserved better football.
Portugal grew into the game as the half progressed but were ineffective in the final third. Ronaldo in particular looked isolated at times and had 19 touches throughout the half mostly in his own territory.
It was going to be a long night in Saint Etienne. Pepe had the best chance if the half when his header from a Portuguese freekick missed by inches.
Things needed to change after the break – the fans were being short changed.
So 5 minutes into the 2ND half with the match still at a bore draw, Portugal made their first substitution. On came young prodigy Renato Sanches. He replaced Andre Gomes who was ineffective. The youngster immediately had impact in the game, giving Portugal more pace going forward and adding a little bite to their attack. He was prone to the occasional foul but overall he was a good introduction at that point.
Croatia still dominated though – Modric the main man for them as usual. He controlled the midfield and linked up well with other teammates.
The game however was still dire and needed one of the teams to throw caution to the wind and go for a winner. It wasn’t meant to be however as it ended goalless after 90mins.
Into extra time it went. Ronaldo and Co still searching for that vital goal. Perisic with his new hairstyle had a few pops at goal but nothing of significant threat to Portuguese keeper Rui Patricio. Pepe was marshalling the defense well with Fonte and Cedric putting in a good shift too at the back.
In second half of extra time Croatia almost clinched it when a header from Perisic hit the post. It was for that Croatian onslaught that Portugal launched an attack of their own. Ronaldo picking the ball from his own half and squaring it off to Sanches. The youngster with enough time on the ball and so many options, found Nani on his left. Nani’s attempted shot at goal found an on rushing Ronaldo who went for goal himself only to be thwarted by the Croatian keeper. His clearance however fell right onto the path of Ricardo Quaresma who had the easy task of heading into an empty net. Lucky Portugal won the game with their only shot on target.
Portugal won it right at the death. They move on to the quarterfinals to face Poland on Thursday in Marseille. An improved performance will be needed from them as they seem to be riding their luck.
For Croatia, commiserations. They will feel hard done by but such is the nature of the game when you fail to take your chances.