The final line of the Portuguese national anthem triumphantly proclaims “against the cannons, march, march”, and facing a Netherlands team packed with its heaviest artillery, Paulo Bento’s side forged a path to victory the in Battle of Kharkiv. The war, too, was won as progress to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals was secured. While German celebrations await Lviv, its Eastern brother will be alive with the sound of fado.
Kharkiv has been the adopted home of 30,000 Oranje fans for the past ten days, but those most colourful of supporters were forced to endure another pallid display as their team waved the white flag for the third successive game. The Dutch may boast an embarrassment of attacking riches, but they do not have the richest attacking talent in Europe. This was the night that Cristiano Ronaldo belatedly announced his arrival at Euro 2012.
He may have failed to find the net in his opening two games, but what Ronaldo did find was the unwavering support of his manager. Bento has always brought the best out of his captain – his seven goals under him in qualifying testify as much – and once more he flourished for the man who was a senior figure at Sporting when he first broke into the first team. That Ronaldo’s maiden goal of this European Championship was set up by another Bento boy in Joao Pereira, whose international debut came in the first match of his reign, would have also been gratifying.
As former Real Madrid midfielder Christian Karembeu handed current the Blanco the official UEFA man of the match trophy, he spoke of the Portuguese “doing his talking on the pitch”. Ronaldo, though, played down his contributions by insisting that “without the team, we wouldn't have won”; Bento, too, was not in the mood to lavish praise on his star turn.
“I am satisfied that we have achieved our aim and that we did that brilliantly with a great united organisation in these three games,” he said. “In some games, players show more of their individual quality but it is the team I am proud of... We have shown in the two games [against Denmark and Netherlands] that we can have the capability to react, we will not let up. We have always had this philosophy that it’s possible to turn things around. Now we have achieved an important aim for the team and the whole country.”
That achievement had initially looked unlikely after Rafael van der Vaart scored on his 99th appearance for his country. It seemed Bert van Marwijk’s decision to start the Tottenham playmaker in the place of captain, and son-in-law, Mark van Bommel had been vindicated. But aside from his beautifully curled opener, Van der Vaart’s influence was limited, as was that of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who was an anonymous presence up front.
Just two years ago, this Netherlands side emulated their legendary predecessors of 1978 by reaching the World Cup final, but in Kharkiv they drew a more unfavourable parallel with that team. The ’78 vintage, too, turned sour as the 1980 European Championship brought group-stage elimination and, spookily, even a defeat to Germany in the second fixture. For Johnny Rep, Arie Haan and the Van der Kerkhof twins, read Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder; World Cup finalists to continental also-rans and the only Netherlands teams to fail to advance from a European Championship group.
Portugal, in contrast, maintained their impressive record of never failing to reach the knockout stage of the European Championship, this time booking a quarter-final with Czech Republic in Warsaw. It was also another victory over Netherlands, the third time in the past five major tournaments that the Iberians have been responsible for their exit. Though a repeat of the ugly clash that saw 20 cards in Dusseldorf at the 2006 World Cup was occasionally threatened with some robust challenges – notably from Jetro Willems and an apparent elbow by Robin van Persie on Pepe – but this was not a match won by sheer brute force. It was the irrepressible talent of a nation's talisman
Ronaldo's name was the only one on the lips of the Kharkiv locals who flocked to the city's final game and, on a Sunday night in Freedom Square, the Portuguese tributes to him may be heard as far afield as northern Poland.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo. When his country really needed him, he answered the call in devastating style. Yes, there were misses again, but there was no frustration, only focus. His perseverance bore fruit with two well-taken goals, the second of which showed the sort of swagger that helped Real Madrid to the Spanish title, as he stopped with the ball when most would have shot. Should Portugal’s progress continue, the FIFA Ballon d’Or award could well be coming back to casa Cristiano.
PORTUGAL VERDICT: More physical and more ambitious than their opponents, Portugal were deserving winners. Ronaldo and Nani were direct with the ball at their feet, while full backs Fabio Coentrao and Joao Pereira were always a danger bombing down the flanks, and Miguel Veloso once again excelled as the enforcer. A quarter-final tie against Czech Republic appears favourable, though Bento brushed off the “favourites” tag and drew comparisons with his own side, who also showed “resilience” in responding after an opening defeat.
NETHERLANDS VERDICT: Out with a whimper, it seems the “pathetic egos” that Wesley Sneijder cryptically described earlier this week may well have been responsible for an embarrassing tournament. Unrest in the Netherlands camp is hardly a new concept, but lessons have not been learnt and it seems that the exploits in South Africa were merely a false dawn as the perpetual underachievers lived up to their reputation.
FAREWELL KHARKIV: Netherlands fans deserve a final mention for creating an unforgettable atmosphere in Kharkiv, a city that does not count tourism as a central economic contributor. Welcomed by locals with open arms, the Dutch were a vibrant presence, bringing character and business to the city’s service sector.© ESPN