By Simon Evans, Outside the Box
LYON – Two of the most talented – and expensive – players in the world, both part of the Champions League winning Real Madrid team, will face off in Wednesday’s semi-final of Euro 2016 when Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal take on Gareth Bale and Wales.
A place in Sunday’s final against either France or Germany, is on the line in the Stade de Lyon with Wales, an unlikely presence in the last four, in the strange position of being both underdogs and the form team of the pair.
While Wales go into the game still buzzing from their shock 3-1 win over Belgium in Lille on Friday, Portugal have somehow made it to the semi-finals without winning a game inside the 90 minutes of regulation time.
The Portuguese needed penalties to get past Poland in their quarter-final in Marseille having only snuck past Croatia thanks to a Ricardo Quaresma goal late in extra-time.
Wales are playing in a semi-final of a major tournament for the first time, having exceeded all expectations thanks to a combination of astute coaching from young manager Chris Coleman, an impressive time spirit and some outstanding individual displays.
Portugal are no strangers to the latter stages of big competitions but they have lost five of the six semi-finals they have reached, including a defeat on penalties to eventual champions Spain four years ago.
But for many neutrals watching the game, the most fascinating aspect will be the performances of the two undoubted stars of each side.
Ronaldo has a host of medals at club level, with Real and before that Manchester United, along with three World Player of the Year awards recognising his silky skills, speed and quality finishing. What is missing for the 31-year-old though is a trophy with his national team.
The winger has been reluctant to speak to the press, even throwing a microphone into a lake earlier in the tournament, and he has shown signs of frustration on the field, especially a remarkable stamping tantrum during the 3-3 draw with Hungary where he went on to score twice.
But all of that indicates that he will be supremely motivated to beat the Welsh.
and earn a place in Sunday’s clash in the Stade de France.
“He is an example, as captain, of the spirit of this team, of this team’s determination, he wants to do well and he wants to win, in this aspect he has been fantastic. He’s an example of what the team is,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos.
Wales captain Ashley Williams says the team are well aware of the threat from Ronaldo but won’t let distract them from their overall game plan.
“Obviously he is one of the greatest players in the world, but they do have other weapons,” said the Swansea City defender.
“We are not obsessing over him, we will try to nullify them as a team as we have all tournament,” he added.
Wales have their own weapon in the brilliant Bale who scored in each of his team’s group stage games, and set up the own goal that gave Wales victory over Northern Ireland in the round of 16. While he wasn’t on target against Belgium his leadership and attacking presence was essential to the win.
“Gareth is clearly a special player,” said Coleman, “For us he is special, not just because of his talent but what he represents when he plays for Wales.
“He appreciates what he has around him and they appreciate they have a super talent. It’s a good blend.”
The blend will be missing key midfielder Aaron Ramsey and defender Ben Davies however, both are suspended after picking up second yellow cards against Belgium.
Portugal are without defensive midfielder William Carvalho who is also suspended, and are hoping that central defender and leadership presence Pepe, another Real Madrid player, recovers from a thigh injury.
Thursday sees the second semi-final, in Marseille, where world champions Germany take on hosts France at the Stade Velodrome.
Outside the Box is a Univision soccer blog by Simon Evans a British-born, Miami-based sports journalist who has covered every World Cup since 1998 and has worked across Europe and North America covering football for a number of international media outlets. He was the co-author of the ‘Rough Guide to European Football’ and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, Reuters and many other publications. @sgevans