Outsiders and Underachievers: Previewing Wales vs. Portugal

While Wales have been archetypal underdogs at Euro 2016, Portugal still seem like perennial underachievers. Whichever team can shake off their label and play with freedom will succeed.

by Jonathan Wilson
Jul 6 2016, 1:47pm

EPA Images

The two Euro 2016 semi-finals could hardly present a greater contrast. On the one hand, there is Germany against France, a heavyweight clash that reiterates two World Cup semi-finals – a tie that seemed pre-ordained from the moment the draw was made. On the other, there is Wales against Portugal, the tournament's third-smallest, third-pluckiest outsiders, against one of football history's great underachievers; a team that has somehow bundled through to the last four without playing particularly well in any game and without winning a match in normal time.

This is an odd Portugal squad, featuring eight outfielders aged 30 or more and eight aged 24 or less. There's a lot of past and a lot of future and not a huge amount of present. But in a sense that's the way it's always been for Portuguese football: they have never consistently produced top-class talent, which is why there was a 20-year gap between Eusebio's side that got to the World Cup semi-final in 1966 and Portugal's next appearance at the tournament. It says much for Cristiano Ronaldo's importance that he has been in three of the five Portugal sides that have got to the last four of either the World Cup or the Euros.

READ MORE: The Euro 2016 Review

He remains the key figure, although in this tournament he has been more enigmatic than ever. He's been weirdly peripheral, scoring just twice, looking a little out of sorts, never able to impose himself, yet he's had more shots than anybody – 36, a staggering figure given the next highest tally is the 21 of Kevin de Bruyne and, intriguingly, Gareth Bale.

The meeting of Ronaldo and Bale, the two most expensive players in the history of the game, two Real Madrid team-mates whose relationship has not always been easy, is an intriguing sub-plot. It's striking how differently Bale and Ronaldo seem to view international football. Ronaldo is habitually frustrated. Portugal, he has said, would be better if it had more players like him. He is forever berating team-mates, agonised by their failure to give him the right pass. Bale is far more of a leader, somebody who inspires and cajoles. He takes responsibility as the best player in a way that drags the team forward.

Beyond the Bale-Ronaldo axis, William Carvalho will be a big miss // EPA Images/Georgi Licovski

Portugal's strength so far in this tournament has not been Ronaldo, for all his potential, for all that might blossom in the final week, for all that his very presence diverts defenders. It's been the doggedly committed midfield, the younger part of the side, anchored by William Carvalho, a clanking figure who has somehow completed 89% of passes despite his apparent ungainliness. In the two knockout games, his partnership in the centre with Andre Silva has provided a hard-running, tough-tackling core. Carvalho, though, is suspended, which presumably means a return for the smoother midfield-holding talents of Danilo Pereira. Joao Mario will chug up and down on the right and then, if Andre Gomes is fit, there's a choice between him and Renato Sanches. Sanches is the more proactive choice, linking to the front two, while Gomes is more experienced and more defensively reliable.

READ MORE: "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It?" Surveying The Expanded Format at Euro 2016

Iceland's 5-2 defeat to France in Sunday's quarter-final highlighted a problem that commonly afflicts smaller nations deep into tournaments. Six games in a little over three weeks is an exhausting schedule, particularly given the heightened emotional atmosphere of tournament football. And while fatigue may be less of an issue for Wales than it was for Iceland, given the higher level at which most of their players play, the two suspensions will hit Wales hard. Ben Davies can perhaps be replaced by moving Chris Gunter inside to play as one of the three central defenders and bringing in Jazz Richards at right wing-back, but the loss of Aaron Ramsey is a hugely significant blow, however much Chris Coleman has sought to play it down.

While Portugal have lost Carvalho through suspension, Wales have lost Ramsey //EPA Images/Srdjan Suki

"Some of Aaron Ramsey's performances have been off the chart, and we've noticed the difference in Ben [Davies] in this last season since he has been at Tottenham and fighting for that left-back spot with Danny Rose," he said. "But the attitude of the players who haven't played has been fantastic. The other guys who have worked hard will now get a look in for this next game, and it's not a bad one to get a start in the semi-final of a major tournament."

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One of the keys to Wales' success in this tournament has been the balance of their midfield, with Joe Ledley scuffling and Joe Allen keeping the ball circulating. Aaron Ramsey's capacity to burst from deep to link was a major strand in keeping the midfield in touch with Gareth Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu. Coleman essentially has two options, bringing in either Jonny Williams or the more defensive David Edwards.

Wales must keep these two linked to the midfield // EPA Images/Georgi Licovski

Both sides have been at their best sitting off, allowing opponents to come at them then striking at the space left behind them. That is a strength of both Ronaldo and Bale. The danger in terms of the spectacle is that both try to play reactively, and the game becomes an attritional battle of waiting for the opposition to make the first move.