Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale will get all the focus ahead of Wednesday’s Euro 2016 semifinal, but Portugal against Wales is about so much more than the two La Liga superstars.
Let’s ignore Ronaldo and Bale for the timebeing. The key to the first semifinal in Lyon could be the absence of suspended Wales midfielder Aaron Ramsey.
As important as Bale has been to the Dragons with his three goals, Ramsey´s four assists and a goal have arguably been more crucial. He was everywhere in the last eight triumph over Belgium. He is the link between the defence and Bale and his suspension will hurt Wales very hard given they have no obvious world class replacement.
“It’s not about two players, it is about two nations in a semifinal, 11 men against 11 men,” said Bale. “Everybody knows that really.”
France could bring in Moussa Sissoko for the suspended N’Golo Kante in their quarterfinal romp over Iceland, but Wales do not have that luxury. Leicester City’s Andy King could come in for Ramsey, and though his club enjoyed a fairytale English title success last season, he was mainly a substitute. In any case, Welsh media say unheralded Jonathan Williams, who played in the English second tier last term, may step in instead.
Losing Arsenal midfielder Ramsey, to a suspension many neutrals feel is unfair, could have decided the outcome of the last four clash before it even begins.
An immense spirit has been a major factor in Wales making it to this stage in their first European Championship appearance. But determination can only take you so far.
Another worry for Wales’ charismatic coach Chris Coleman, who took over after the suicide of close friend Gary Speed in 2011, is that Portugal have not even played well yet. Surely Fernando Santos’ side have to click at some point having lumbered through the group stage with three draws and then winning their two knockout round clashes in extra time against Croatia and in a penalty shooutout against Poland.
New Bayern Munich signing Renato Sanches has looked very lively, but their overall play has been scrappy and their defence has looked shaky at times. They also lack an out-and-out striker with winger Nani having operated there.
But yes, they have Ronaldo.
Two goals in the thrilling 3-3 draw with Hungary have been his only meaningful contributions on the pitch along with his penalty in the quarterfinal shootout win over Poland. He does not look fully fit after a gruelling season for Real Madrid, but it is his role as captain which may make the difference.
He is often seen as an individualist, but footage has emerged of him geeing up team mate Joao Moutinho ahead of the shootout with Poland and Ronaldo may still be able to drag his team over the line and reach an unlikely final.
It would not be as unlikely as Wales reaching the showpiece at the Stade de France on Sunday against either France or Germany. They were rank outsiders at the start but have helped light up the tournament along with Iceland.
Bale will be desperate to outshine Ronaldo and produce a moment of magic to seal a dream final for the tiny nation. However, he will probably wish Ramsey was with him.