Gifted Portugal dragged down by Ronaldo the anchor in underwhelming Euro 2024 exit

Gifted Portugal dragged down by Ronaldo the anchor in underwhelming Euro 2024 exit

Six and out. Cristiano Ronaldo’s sixth and last European Championships came to an end as Portugal paid for an impotence that stemmed from affording their captain privileged status. They went out on penalties, Joao Felix rolling his spot kick against the foot of the post as everyone else scored, but after a second successive stalemate, after 364 minutes without scoring.

If it is an equally damning statistic that no France player has scored for them in open play this tournament, five did in a shootout. Diogo Costa had saved a trio of Slovenian spot kicks in the last 16 but Ousmane Dembele, Youssouf Fofana, Jules Kounde and Bradley Barcola all found the net, allowing Theo Hernandez to set up a superpower semi-final against Spain.

The ends can justify the means and for Didier Deschamps, dullness has brought a fourth semi-final in the last five major tournaments. In the process, France conquered a demon or two. Eliminated from Euro 2020 on penalties, losing the 2022 World Cup final in a shootout, France avoided an unwanted hat-trick. They also gained a modicum of revenge for their Euro 2016 final defeat to Portugal.

France could finally celebrate a penalty shootout win (AP)

But one of the most eagerly-anticipated games of the tournament was also among the dullest. Two teams of such talent showed precious little ambition. France were stymied by Deschamps’s caution, Portugal by their increasingly weird refusal to play without Ronaldo, the man they refuse to drop or substitute. With the players in each squad, it could have been a classic, but the highlight of the first hour instead was referee Michael Oliver running so fast his yellow card fell out of his pocket. The second hour was better but scarcely epic; indeed Dembele, who did not come on until the 67th minute, was named man of the match.

Real Madrid’s Galacticos past and future are yet to score in open play this tournament. Ronaldo skewed an injury-time shot way over, following quick footwork by Francisco Conceicao, but neither came close to finding the net over 120 minutes. Mbappe did not complete them; Ronaldo did, scoring Portugal’s first spot kick.

And it long felt obvious they would be required. It had some of the essence of tournament football: the drawn-out nature of knockout ties, the sense one mistake could be fatal, the commensurate choice of caution. There seemed a shared sense of a grind to glory, that success involves suffering. There seemed something predictable in a goalless draw. There was an old-fashioned feel with players camped behind the ball, with precious little pressing. Deschamps picked a trio of defensive midfielders. Somewhere, Jose Mourinho was probably nodding approvingly.

Kylian Mbappe was taken off before the penalty shootout but watched France triumph (AFP)

It was, as expected, a war of attrition but there is a battle-hardened quality to this France side. The defining performances came from the defensively minded: Pepe, Portugal’s oldest man of war, celebrating after recovering to dispossess the far younger Marcus Thuram; N’Golo Kante, eating up ground as though he were a decade younger; Eduardo Camavinga, another of France’s trio of 90 minutes; Mike Maignan, with two fine blocks in as many minutes. The attackers offered too little: Mbappe provided glimpses of pace and Rafael Leao at least tormented Kounde, albeit without much end product, in part because of a lack of movement in the middle. But with Antoine Griezmann, at least restored to his preferred role as a No 10, ineffective, France had no creativity. With 10 men and a static deity, Portugal did not really have a centre-forward.

For France, the result offers validation. Portugal, however, can go out wondering what could have been if they were more ambitious. Conceicao offered some verve in his cameo. Bruno Fernandes was oddly withdrawn. Given Roberto Martinez’s attacking ethos, they scarcely felt like a Martinez team. It was as though Fernando Santos was still in charge.

Pepe was left distraught as Portugal crashed out (AFP via Getty Images)
Ronaldo’s performance was entirely ineffective (EPA)

Not that France were much more adventurous. The lone shot on target in the first half came from Hernandez, which Costa parried; there were only four off target, none from the player with the most goals in the European Championships and the one who may end up with the most in the World Cup.

After a sterile hour, there came belated signs of life. Previously muted, Portugal suddenly created two fine chances. The initial incision came from Joao Cancelo, with a defence-splitting pass for Fernandes to drive a shot that Maignan parried. Then Leao picked out Vitinha, whose first-time shot was repelled by the goalkeeper. Tellingly, neither chance involved Ronaldo.

France responded with two of their own. When Randal Kolo Muani escaped behind the Portugal defence, Ruben Dias did wonderfully to deflect his shot wide. An unmarked Camavinga dragged a shot wide. Yet that represented the most eventual spell. Nuno Mendes could have won it in the 120th minute but penalties felt destined. And for Portugal, Felix’s miss meant their tournament ended with a hugely gifted group feeling like underwhelming underachievers.