Ronaldo peaks, Portugal dares to dream
REPORTING FROM LYON
At the Stade de Lyon, the deadlock was starting to look all too familiar, the semi-final was in danger of turning into an anti-climax.
Portugal and Wales were trading punches without inflicting any real damage.
Then Cristiano Ronaldo popped up and took the game by the scruff of the neck.
He hasn't done this often enough at Euro 2016 but, this time, it was decisive.
His 50th-minute header finally broke the Dragons' resistance in the semi-final yesterday morning (Singapore time).
His assist for Luis Nani's goal three minutes later killed off all hopes of a comeback for the plucky underdogs.
A 2-0 victory over Wales saw Portugal reach their first European Championship final since 2004.
Ronaldo gatecrashed the party of a man widely seen as his Galactico successor, Welshman Gareth Bale.
And the 31-year-old Portuguese is now on the cusp of outdoing an even greater rival, Lionel Messi.
Should Ronaldo go on to lift the trophy at the Stade de France on Monday morning, he may even settle one of football's biggest debates: Who the real king of his generation is.
Messi, despite his collection of honours with Barcelona, has never claimed a major trophy with his country Argentina.
The latest Copa America final defeat by Chile was too much to bear for the Argentine star, as he called time on his international career.
In one fell swoop, Ronaldo answered the many critics in emphatic fashion yesterday morning.
The Portugal skipper, largely unimpressive in France, has shown an uncanny ability to thrive when it mattered most.
The only other time Ronaldo shone in Euro 2016 was during their final group game with Hungary.
In the 3-3 draw which Portugal came back from behind thrice to earn the point that secured their ticket to the knock-out stages, he came up with two goals and an assist.
Often accused of being a disruptive influence rather than a positive one for his country, he led by example against Wales with his tireless running and determination.
Portugal, widely seen as being least worthy of a last-four spot among the semi-finalists, won their first match at Euro 2016 inside 90 minutes.
But there's no doubt the slow starters are growing into the tournament.
Like Portugal, Ronaldo may be peaking at the right time.
It was his Michael Jordan-like hang-time leap in the 50th minute that even Wales' aerially powerful men couldn't handle.
As the cross floated across the penalty box, the Real Madrid forward launched himself into the air and connected the ball with his head to give his side the crucial lead.
He will take plenty of personal satisfaction out of it too, as he now has nine goals in the competition, making him the joint-highest scorer in European Championship history with Michel Platini.
Then in the 53rd minute, he drilled the ball across the area for Nani to turn home.
Whether or not Ronaldo intended it to be a pass didn't matter.
That both of Portugal's goals came via his intervention should be ample warning to whoever they meet in the final, be it France or Germany.
Defiant Welsh fans sang their hearts out at the final whistle, their way of paying tribute to their unlikely heroes.
The Portuguese on the north stand bounced as one with unbridled joy, thumping chests and waving flags, their affection directed at their one and only.
He got the attention he so craved, and he fully deserved it.
This was Ronaldo's show, one which desire and execution dovetailed to an almost perfect symmetry.
The Portuguese supporters celebrated long into the night, the party spilling from the stadium compound into numerous parts across the city.
They believe they have a date with destiny. They could feel a first major title coming.
With Ronaldo in such mood, they can certainly dare to dream.
(Cristiano Ronaldo 50, Luis Nani 53)
Ronaldo: It's a marathon, not a race
Cristiano Ronaldo is determined to make his country's dreams come true after spearheading Portugal to the Euro 2016 final.
The Portuguese contested a seventh semi-final at a major tournament yesterday morning (Singapore time) and resulted in just their second-ever final, 12 years after embarrassingly falling to surprise package Greece on home soil.
The Euro 2004 defeat still rankles with Ronaldo (right) and the Real Madrid attacker is now tantalisingly close to making amends, having led Portugal to a 2-0 win against Wales in Lyon.
The 31-year-old's incredible header early in the second half was followed three minutes later by Luis Nani turning home his shot, sending them into Monday morning's Stade de France finale against world champions Germany or hosts France.
DIFFERENT FROM 2004
"This is different," the Man of the Match said, comparing this tournament to Euro 2004.
"I was 18, that was my first final. My debut. Now 12 years have gone by and now we are going to play another final. I am very proud of that.
"I have always dreamed of winning for Portugal, I hope it is our turn now.
"I am very confident and I believe that all these boys deserve it. I deserve it, Portugal deserve it, the fans deserve it - every single Portuguese person deserves it. They've been amazing supporters.
"We've yet to win anything, but it's the final. I don't think many people thought that Portugal would make it to the final, but we are there.
"That fills me with pride, I am very happy. Now we have to get ready for Sunday and we want to make this dream true."
Ronaldo (above) approaches the match fresh from another historic display, having equalled Michel Platini's record of nine European Championship goals.
"Record-breaking is something very nice," he said.
"I have broken many records before and I am still breaking records for club and country, but this all comes naturally and the crucial thing was to reach the final.
"I am very happy and I am very proud of all my teammates. Me and the boys have always dreamed of being there. Now it's almost there.
"I've always dreamed of winning something for Portugal and now it's just one step away. Dreaming is free so let's keep dreaming."
Few could have foreseen Portugal making the July 10 finale, having finished third in Group F behind Hungary and Iceland.
Fernando Santos' side had not even won a match inside 90 minutes until yesterday morning's semi-final in Lyon, but relentlessly-confident Ronaldo says his belief never wavered.
"This is something that I wanted after winning the Champions League," he said.
"I believed in my heart, we would go far in the Euro. Maybe it didn't start off as well as we wanted it to but this is not a 100-metre dash, this is a marathon.
"We got past the group stages to the knockout stages.
"When you think of Nani, Renato (Sanches) and (Ricardo) Quaresma who has also scored, we're all a team. Portugal are not all about me."
- PA Sport.
Ron the best header of the ball?
Former England striker Gary Lineker summed it up best when he said on Twitter: "I've never seen a player leap as high and fly as long as Ronaldo can. What a remarkable athlete."
Indeed, the world was in awe of Cristiano Ronaldo's towering header against Wales in the semi-finals yesterday morning (Singapore time).
The goal, which helped send Portugal through to the final, saw Ronaldo leap above James Chester and plant a powerful header past Wayne Hennessey on 50 minutes.
"It was like watching a basketball player going up for a slam dunk." former Arsenal defender Martin Keown told The Daily Mail.
Ronaldo, who stands at 1.85 metres, climbed to a remarkable height of 2.62m to make contact with the ball well above the flailing Chester.
And the "hang time" - to borrow a basketball phrase - which both Lineker and Keown alluded to - was 0.7 seconds.
To hold your body in the air for nearly a second is quite some feat in itself, reported The Daily Mail.
The goal begs the question: is Ronaldo the greatest header of the ball in the world?
It is hard to think of a current player who can lay a greater claim to that crown than the soaring Madeiran.
- Wire Services.