Every superstar needs his sidekick; or in the case of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, sidekicks.
Portugal finally subdued a game Czech Republic side 1-0 in the first quarterfinal of Euro 2012, and Ronaldo’s 79th-minute goal will get the majority of the plaudits. The tally was the Real Madrid attacker’s third in two games, and after years of frustration at the international level, he’s on the cusp of making this tournament his own.
Yet while the match marked yet another personal triumph for Ronaldo, it was also a victory for Portugal’s midfield. For much of the match it looked like it was going to be one of those days in front of goal for Portugal. Not only did A Seleccao squander a slew of opportunities – Ronaldo twice hit the post – but it also found Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech in inspired form, with his fingertip save of a Joao Moutinho blast in the 64th minute the pick of the bunch.
In years past, that might have been an invitation for frustration to get the better of the Portuguese. That it didn’t was down to the midfield trio of Moutinho, Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso who slowly beat the Czechs at their own possession game, starving them of oxygen. In fact, so dominant was Portugal in the second half that when Czech wingers Vaclav Pilar and Petr Jiracek took off on long runs, they were noticeable as much for their rarity as they were for the brief danger they caused.
But rather than allow momentum to shift the Czechs’ way, Portugal quickly reasserted its authority. And it was fitting that it was Moutinho who delivered the telling cross that Ronaldo nodded home with a knifing run in front of Theodor Gebre Selassie. The Porto midfielder got stronger as the game went on, and his ability, as well as that of his teammates, to provide that support to Ronaldo will be critical as Portugal heads deeper into the tournament.
But if Portugal’s performance highlighted the need for sidekicks to step forward, the Czechs revealed that such players can take a team only so far in the absence of a star player. And not for the first time at a major tournament, the Czechs were undone by a lack of depth. At the 2006 World Cup, what looked to be an insanely talented team was sunk by an untimely injury to forward Jan Koller. Six years later, it was Tomas Rosicky whom the Czechs couldn’t do without. An Achilles injury sustained against Greece sidelined the midfielder for the team’s final two games, and while manager Michal Bilek managed to squeeze a 1-0 victory over Poland out of his side, doing the same against a much more talented Portugal team was too big an ask, especially without Rosicky around to manage the game’s tempo.
Just how thin was the Czech bench? Consider that after watching Daniel Kolar deliver two relatively anonymous performances in place of Rosicky, Bilek was forced to turn to 21-year-old Vladimir Darida – who was a late replacement on the roster for the injured Daniel Pudil – to fill the attacking midfield spot. And while the Viktoria Plzen midfielder had some bright moments, there were times when he showed his inexperience by holding on to the ball too long.
Darida was by no means alone in this area, and it proved to be the team’s undoing. But it was also a case of the Czechs playing only as well as Portugal allowed them, and the patience and ball-winning of Moutinho, Meireles and Veloso – and of course the continued brilliance of Ronaldo – ultimately carried the day. Their play proved once again that a superstar’s path to glory is paved with the contributions of his supporting cast.