Portugal made it through. In the National Stadium of Warsaw in Poland, the exploits of their hub, their nucleus, their heartbeat were of intrinsic value to the Portuguese. Cristiano Ronaldo once again hoisted upon his back the burden of a nation, delivering still a fantastic performance and another Semi-Final berth. Transforming from dire to exciting an otherwise poor game, Ronaldo's impact was startlingly evident and unavoidable. He is Portugal.
It was a game strangulated by the lack of desire on the part of Czech Republic. Theirs was a strategy devoid of any attacking basis, rather content merely to sit back in an ultra-defensive shape, employing a primitive man-to-man marking scheme on both Ronaldo and Nani. For seventy-eight minutes, by luck rather than judgement, it worked, with Portugal limited to excruciating near misses and occasional bursts of genius from a frustrated and often irate Cristiano.
The true extent of Portuguese reliance on Ronaldo is worrying. The midfield is too often persuaded to find and search Ronaldo with a pass, perhaps even when it is clearly not the best option. By having such a star, such a figment of unbelievable talent lurking out on the left flank, midfielders Veloso and Meireles can be too easily caught absentmindedly stroking the ball that way. It is as if the presence of such immense individual talent paradoxically zaps from the reserves of others any similar inclination.
However, when the player on whom you rely to such an extent is as good as Cristiano Ronaldo, such tendencies can be masked over. He is truly exceptional. With explosive acceleration that takes away the breath, with sheer brute power that is a sight to behold, with an innate and discernible confidence that is infectious, Ronaldo carries the hopes and dreams of a footballing nation upon his back, yet does not crumble nor bow to external pressure. Rather, he thrives.
For a full half of football, it required the utmost focus and dedication of numbers from the Czechs to merely contain Ronaldo. However, he is a player that meets true greatness often out of his willingness to make in-game adjustments and changes. By moving into a more central berth as the first half developed, Portugal's main fulcrum of threat found more time on the ball, found more variety in his game, found opportunities. When thread from range a long and lingering ball from Raul Meireles on the stroke of half time, Ronaldo controlled with exquisite and impeccable ease. With poignancy and panache, he swiveled and, on the half-turn, clattered a shot off the post. Despite being so palpably effortless, this moment was the highlight of the half.
The second half brought not a tactical paradigm shift from the Czech Republic, but rather an even more stoical adherence to their per-determined plan of stifle Cristiano and Nani, before hoping for penalties later on. In essence, it is a sound plan. Independent of their two brilliant wingers, Portugal have little else. A midfield triumvirate of Veloso, Moutinho and Meireles can appear lightweight, disinterested in work and ineffective at certain times, and, thus, the Czechs were correct in their approach up to a certain point. However, on this day, even man-marking of extreme descriptors could not nullify Ronaldo.
A trademark wheezing and screeching free-kick grazed the woodwork after its long and unpredictable journey, serving only as a precursor to Ronaldo's moment. It arrived in the seventy-ninth Polish minute. Despite beginning almost fifteen yards away from the ultimate destination, Ronaldo exploded from a wide berth into the box, meeting with a crescendo Jao Moutinho's delicious cross with a thunderous header. Out of sheer desire, hunger and willingness, Cristiano Ronaldo, once again, had gifted Portugal the lead. Out of sheer brilliance, talent and skill, Cristiano Ronaldo, once again, had qualified Portugal for the Semi-Finals.
On this night, Ronaldo reliance trumped Czech resistance in a dramatic and late conclusion. This victory signified not only Ronaldo's knocking at the door of true genius, but also the cracking up a notch of this European Championship. Things just got a bit more serious.