Richard Jolly on how Ronaldo was at the centre of everything for Portugal
CZECH REPUBLIC 0-1 PORTUGAL
Stop Ronaldo and you stop Portugal? It is a theory and one which the Czech Republic explored. The eventual scoreline suggests they failed; although they managed to subdue him for spells, he hit the woodwork twice and delivered the winner. But it was a game of five different phases tactically. The first four revolved around Ronaldo and the fifth was caused by him.
The first came when the Czech Republic attempted to man-mark Ronaldo and Nani with their two full-backs – and when the Portugal captain got the ball, for others to surround him as quickly as possible so that he had two or three immediate opponents. The initial success of the plan prompted Ronaldo to roam, making it harder for the right-back, Theodor Gebre Selassie, to follow him across the pitch.
It created a problem for the Czech Republic. It is easier to man-mark a player in a fixed position than one who could appear everywhere (arguably the best way to do that is to take one man out of the formation altogether and, say, play 4-4-1 with the other player a specialist marker) and for the final 15 minutes of the first half, Ronaldo was rampant, running free in the inside-right channel. This was the second phase but, as long as Portugal committed few men forward, it was possible for the nearest two or three Czechs to head for Ronaldo even if – as he showed when he hit the post – that was not quite the same as stopping him.
Hence phase three, when Portugal started to play on the front foot as a team. They had the least possession of any of the quarter-finalists in the group stages; a sign they were happy to play on the counter-attack. In the second half, however, they played in the Czech half, pressing higher up the pitch, penning their opponents in, helped by the physical power of their full-backs, Fabio Coentrao and Joao Pereira, and the two midfield runners, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho.
It seemed a Catch-22 situation for the Czechs – they needed more of the ball and an attacking threat to force Portugal back but they required nine outfield players in their half to stem the attacks of Paulo Bento’s side and prevent them from breaking through.
It brought phase four when Michal Bilek responded by removing the most offensive of his central midfielders, Vladimir Darida, and bringing Petr Jiracek infield to form a more solid trio in the middle. Having started playing 4-2-3-1, they were basically playing a deep 4-5-1. By doing so, however, they reduced the space between the lines and, temporarily, reduced Ronaldo’s influence.
Yet it also invited the Portuguese midfield still further forward and that, together with an illustration of Ronaldo’s aerial prowess, brought the goal. Meireles and Moutinho have generally been unadventurous in the tournament but, in one of the few examples of either going past the forwards, the latter reached the byline to cross for Ronaldo to head in. He had escaped Gebre Selassie and, with his header, to add to his pace and skill, showed the difficulty of finding a player who can man-mark him.
His goal came sufficiently late that phase five was brief. The Czech Republic threw on a target man, Tomas Pekhart, to join Milan Baros in attack. Worn down by their earlier exertions, they posed little threat.
Their attacking efforts, such as they were, occurred largely in the first half hour. It was instructive that they advanced more on their left flank, even if perhaps the key player was the right winger. Jiracek made angled runs to the left, linking up with Vaclav Pilar, in what seemed a plan to isolate and outnumber Portugal’s right-back Pereira – perhaps thinking that he is the potential weak link in the back four. They were helped by Darida, preferred to Daniel Kolar as the player to deputise for Tomas Rosicky. His horizontal movement meant that, rather than operating just in the hole, he went from touchline to touchline.
Attacking on the flanks is a logical step against Portugal because, while the three central midfielders are diligent in shielding the defence, neither winger tracks back. Ronaldo’s unwillingness to help Coentrao has cost them in previous games. Here it was notable that holding midfielder Miguel Veloso came across from the base of midfield to support the left-back: while poor in possession, he served a defensive function. In the second half, however, Portugal’s full-backs, both former wingers, had little defending to do and, at times, they only really needed the two central defenders to stay back.