Portugal ride their luck, says Andrew Warshaw
They've blown a big chance, and talented Croatia will be MISSED
ROUND OF 16
(Ricardo Quaresma 117)
- After extra time
As the sun set over the Stade Bollaert-Delelis Stadium in Lens on Saturday evening, the sight of Croatia's crestfallen players - some sobbing uncontrollably, others looking like bemused zombies - reinforced one of football's oldest adages: it's a cruel game.
Matches can turn in a flash and there was no better example of this than in the dying moments at Euro 2016's smallest venue.
When Croatia hit the upright with an Ivan Peresic header as the clocked ticked towards the end of extra time, the lottery of penalties loomed.
Croatia, at that point, would probably have settled for that.
After all, Cristiano Ronaldo had missed four of his previous six.
Instead, the ball broke kindly for the opposition.
What looked like a mishit shot from Luis Nani found its way to Ronaldo and although his effort was brilliantly saved by Daniel Subasic, the ball was teed up for much-travelled substitute Ricardo Quaresma to head into an empty net.
Cue euphoria at one end, despair at the other. When Euro 2016 winds up on July 10 and the trophy is handed over, the memories of Croatia's last-16 defeat will be long forgotten by most neutrals.
But not by Ante Cacic's much-fancied side, who had probably the most gifted all-round squad in the competition with a genuine chance of going all the way, but found themselves painfully dreaming of what might have been.
The fact that the most eagerly awaited match in the tournament, given the amount of talent on show, turned into a damp squib, with not a single shot on target until Portugal's highly fortuitous extra-time winner, said much about the downside of knockout football which at times can be low on expression and creativity and high on cagey, negative tactics for fear of losing.
Both teams were guilty of such an approach, but the overriding feeling watching the inconsolable Croats was that they had blown a golden chance.
More importantly, that the tournament itself is worse off for their exit.
Everyone knew what Croatia were capable of.
They had already shown it against Spain and had been a breath of fresh air, the one dark horse who could trouble the usual suspects.
Yet, it is Portugal who have somehow wriggled their way into the last eight without winning a group match and after one of the most ineffective international performances by Ronaldo, a peripheral figure for 117 minutes until his role in the last-gasp winner.
There's another football adage: there ain't no justice.
Croatia, many of whose leading lights did not perform up their usual standards, need to shoulder some of the blame for the desperately disappointing and sterile occasion.
They had 17 shots but none were on target. Did they miss a trick? Certainly.
They may never have a better chance of winning a major tournament for years to come.
But given what they brought to the party overall in terms of skill and technique - if not the reputation of pockets of their unpredictable fans - their exit is a real shame.
Instead, we have Portugal possibly - make that probably - reaching the semi-finals having shown almost no ambition.
Perhaps the most telling statistic was that it was the first time Ronaldo had started a European Championship game and not registered a single shot within 90 minutes.
"Sometimes you have to be pragmatic," said coach Fernando Santos. "It'd be nice to play pretty, but that's not always how you win tournaments."
Fair enough. But a similar cagey display against Poland in the last eight and that argument will start to wear thin. Or perhaps I am just being an old romantic.
Portugal came into this tournament desperate to shrug off their reputation as being the nearly men of international football.
Maybe they have learned that there are different ways to skin a cat.
Every successful team, in any sport, in any competition, need a little good fortune.
Portugal, in reaching the quarter-finals, have used up their fair share. So, will the real Portugal now stand up?
- Andrew Warshaw is one of the UK's most experienced football journalists and has written for a raft of international newspapers and magazines. He has covered the World Cup and European Championship Finals for over 30 years.