By Antony Jordan
This Wednesday evening will see the first Euro 2016 finalist decided as the neutrals favourites, Wales, take on a side that is yet to win any of their matches in normal time, Portugal, in Lyon.
This is the biggest match in Welsh football history, while Portugal are looking to repeat their performance of 12 years ago on home soil when they reached the final of the 2004 European Championships and to add to this the two of the biggest, best and most expensive players in world football – both of whom play for Real Madrid – take to the pitch, but will it be Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Wales’ Gareth Bale that helps decide who’ll be just 90 minutes away from lifting the European Championship trophy?
We preview this first semi-final clash with online sportsbook Bet365.com to bring the best Euro 2016 picks of this final four stage.
To Win (90 minutes):
To Reach the Final:
Route to the Semi Finals:
Portugal have been far from impressive at Euro 2016 so far this summer as they drew all three of their Group F matches finishing behind Hungary and Iceland before having arguably worse performances in the knockout stages. They defeated Croatia 1-0 after a 117th minute goal (with that decider being the first shot on target!) before falling behind to Poland after two minutes in the Quarter Finals.
They fought hard to secure a leveller and it came half an hour later through 18 year old Renato Sanches via a deflection but, once again, after the game collapsed as a spectacle with few chances, poor passing and even poorer shooting as another 90 minutes of football produced no further goals. Portugal progressed on penalties, but they are still without a normal time victory in five matches and without their key man in Cristiano Ronaldo firing on all cylinders will they be able to reach the final against a plucky Welsh side?
Unlike their opposition, Wales have gotten better and better as this tournament has progressed with them topping their group after beating Slovakia and Russia (as well as suffering a last second defeat to England) and since they reached the last 16 stage they have faced two very different tests and come through both with flying colours.
First up was one of the toughest defences in the competition in fellow British Islanders Northern Ireland and the Welsh edged that match 1-0 thanks to a wicked cross and a slightly unlucky own goal from Gareth McAuley before many expected them to exit the competition at the Quarter Final stage.
This was because they faced a very fancied Belgium side and after finding themselves behind after 13 minutes things did not look good for Chris Coleman’s side, but three amazing goals later they booked their first ever semi-final spot and they’ll now have every neutral in the world cheering for them alongside the passionate Welsh fans, but will it be enough to upset the odds?
Portugal will certainly miss defensive midfielder William Carvalho for this match as he is suspended while Real Madrid defender Pepe has been nursing a thigh injury and may not recover in time to claim his 77th cap for the nation in this match. Left-back Raphael Guerreiro and midfielder Andre Gomes both missed the Quarter Final against Poland with muscle injuries, but are reported to be fit again for this clash.
Pepe and Carvalho will be missed, but the bigger concern for Portugal boss Fernando Santos is the form of Cristiano Ronaldo as the attacker has been nothing like his brilliant best as he has failed to beat men, missed shots (including missing the ball completely on occasion) and continuing to fail to score from free kicks and is zero from 43 in major tournaments. However, it only takes a minute to score and the pressure of this match along with competing for the spotlight with team-mate Gareth Bale may bring out his best.
Wales have bigger missing player problems for this match as midfielder Aaron Ramsey and defender Ben Davies are both suspended for this match, and many believe that if Ramsey – who has run the engine room of this Welsh side – was available then Wales could even be the favourites to win this match. That’s the kind of difference that the Arsenal man has made this summer!
Bale is the top scorer all the players who will take the field with three goals and he has been almost as integral to Wales’ success as Ramsey, but even without the key midfield man the team spirit for Wales will certain see them make up the difference from the loss of their suspensions.
These two sides have clashed on just one occasion over the last six and a half decades as Portugal triumphed 16 years ago as Luis Figo opened the scoring in a comfortable 3-0 win for the Portuguese side. Things are very different this time now though as many of these players are aware of each and have played against each other, so we expect this match to be much closer than the last meeting.
The Welsh come into this match as the second best attacking side in the competition having netted ten times in five matches, with only France having gone one better thanks to putting five past Iceland in their last game, and with Cristiano Ronaldo having netted just two goals in 13 knockout stage matches in international tournaments there is certainly the chance that this Welsh side could upset the odds to make their first European Championship final on their debut.
Portugal have won just one of six semi-final matches at World Cup and Euros, with that win coming 12 years ago on home soil, and with Gareth Bale having had the most shots on target of all players at Euro 2016 Portugal may find themselves on the back foot in this one at times.
The reason for this is that Wales have played forward thinking football with plenty of attacking and counter-attacking football played at pace, while Portugal have seemingly retreated into their shells in recent matches. However, the loss of Ramsey and Davies for Wales are big blows and it will take just one moment of genius from Ronaldo, Nani or Sanches to turn the tide towards the Portuguese side.
We see the Welsh side’s team spirit and way of playing the game getting under the skin of Portugal in this final four stage match and we’re backing them to push them all the way and make it difficult for Ronaldo and co. if they’re to make the final.