It is already being billed as the battle between the two most expensive footballers on the planet. The Ronaldo vs Bale story has been overshadowing a showdown that promises to be a very exciting fixture between a pre-tournament favourite that has not yet clicked into gear and the dark horse of the competition that seems to have found his stride. In the run-up to this match it is worth considering four factors that could lead to Portugal being crowned the next champions of Europe.
Ramsey, Ramsey, Ramsey!
Ramsey’s suspension from the biggest game in Welsh history is by far the biggest blow any team has suffered in Euro 2016. While Gareth Bale has been taking all the plaudits for his free kick scoring exploits, Ramsey has been comfortably the team’s best player and the one that makes the team tick. He was everywhere against Belgium and allows Joe Allen the freedom and space to showcase some of his passing abilities; abilities that won him his “Welsh Pirlo” nickname.
The Talismanic Striker
Cristiano Ronaldo’s impact has almost single handedly carried the Portuguese team through qualifier after qualifier and he even led them to the semi-final of the 2012 European Championship where they narrowly lost on penalties to eventual champions Spain. With the exception of his debut tournament with the Figo generation Ronaldo has not been blessed with a sufficient supporting cast since losing the 2004 final.
This time around latest crop of Portuguese stars though have something else to say and in this year’s edition of the competition they have carried the misfiring Ronaldo to a semi-final match-up against a Welsh side led by Gareth Bale. For Portugal to reach the final and have a chance of lifting the trophy their talisman needs to find his shooting boots and rediscover the form that made him arguably the best finisher that has ever graced a football pitch.
The Midfield Battle
Beyond Aaron Ramsey’s absence and the huge blow it represents Welsh hopes, his likely replacement is Jonny Williams. Here is a player that does not possess the same tactical and positional awareness that the Arsenal man excelled at throughout this tournament, presenting a glaring weakness in midfield.
Joe Allen resembles a 37 year old Scholes after coming back from retirement to signal an end to Paul Pogba’s career at Manchester United in that he is able to showcase his class and passing range when given space and time by the opposition midfield but is seriously exposed when put under pressure.
Renato Sanchez and Danilo Pereira should be given direct orders to put the Welsh midfield under constant pressure and deprive them of any space in the midfield and exploit the counter attacks resulting from the loose balls and misplaced passes by the Welsh midfield duo.
Neil Taylor is missing his protector
Taylor has struggled defensively in four out of the five games of Wales’ successful campaign with the exception being the game against an out of sorts Belgium. Against England, Taylor’s defensive struggles made Kyle Walker look a world beater – a form that he was unable to replicate when it mattered the most against Iceland. Taylor’s missteps are always saved by his team’s togetherness and work rate and by having the underrated Ben Davis covering him in a three man Welsh defence. Davis is another absentee from the semi-final showdown and his likely replacement, James Collins, is not naturally acquainted with covering as a left back the way the Spurs man is.
Against Wales, Fernando Santos should stretch the game and put pressure on the Welsh wing-backs with an emphasis on the now exposed Taylor. By switching to a 4-3-3 formation with Quaresma and Nani flanking Ronaldo the Wales team will be put under the cosh just like they were in their only loss against their fiercest rivals.
Everything above is pointing to a comfortable progression for Ronaldo and Co. but will the Welsh togetherness and team spirit continue to defy the odds in what has been already the season of the underdogs?