Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale will face off against one another as Portugal meets Wales in the Euro 2016 semifinal on Wednesday.
Despite being somewhat understated in the quarterfinal that saw Wales eliminate Belgium, Bale has lit up this tournament with three goals and a number of sparkling performances so far. Beyond that, the 26-year-old has played a real leadership role on the pitch.
Far from the one-man team they were billed as at the start of the tournament, Wales have also reaped the benefits of a strong collective spirit and notable individual contributions from the likes of Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Aaron Ramsey among others.
Apart from a 2-1 loss to England, the Dragons have won all of their matches in the tournament and look the more in-form side heading into Wednesday’s game. Having scored eight goals and conceded four, Wales are one of the more balanced teams at the Euros and were particularly impressive during a 3-0 group-stage thrashing of Russia and in outclassing Belgium 3-1 in the quarters.
Unfortunately for Wales, coach Chris Coleman will be without Ramsey on Wednesday. The Arsenal midfielder who has led the team in touches, passes completed, chances created, and assists, is suspended one match for yellow card accumulation.
Without Ramsey, the onus will be on Bale to live up to his superstar billing and put in the kind of game-changing performance we know he’s capable of.
The same can be said for Ronaldo who, despite having not really played that well, has still managed two goals and two assists. Like Bale, he’s also taken on the mantle of leadership for his team.
A focal point for opposition defenses, even when he’s not got on the scoresheet himself, Ronaldo has been vital in opening up space for the likes of Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and Renato Sanches.
After a rough start to the tournament in which he missed a penalty and at one point, misplaced more shots than any other player at the Euros, Ronaldo has been gradually improving. The Real Madrid superstar is competing in his fourth Euros and having narrowly missed out on getting his hands on the trophy in 2004, has a real chance to leave his mark on this tournament.
Despite his formidable talents, Ronaldo has often been criticized for failing to make an impact in the big matches – Real Madrid’s last two Champions League final victories for instance. At 31 years of age, if he is not past his peak already, he surely will be by the time the World Cup comes around in two years.
So this could be Ronaldo’s last shot at doing something his rival Lionel Messi has failed to do: leading his country to a major international trophy.
In order to do so, Ronaldo may have to keep some of his more indulgent instincts – the tendency to try and win matches by himself for instance – in check. Ronaldo needs to deliver a big game performance, yes. But if Portugal are to get by the more in-form Welsh, it will demand a team effort.
This is Portugal’s fourth semifinal appearance in the last five Euros. Wales on the other hand, are in uncharted territory, having never progressed this far in an international tournament. There is scant history between the two teams. They’ve met just three times with Portugal having won twice and Wales once.
But despite their superior pedigree at this level, getting by Wales will be no easy task for Portugal, who are slight favorites nonetheless.