MARSEILLE: Cristiano Ronaldo is one step closer to the holy grail of an international trophy but was overshadowed by the rising star of 18-year-old teammate Renato Sanches as Portugal booked their place in the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
Despite still having failed to win a game in 90 minutes, Ronaldo is just two games away from delivering Portugal’s first major tournament win as A Selecao scraped past Poland 5-3 on penalties in Marseille.
The quarter-final clash had been billed as a shootout between two of Europe’s leading marksmen. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Ronaldo scored a combined 93 goals for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid this season.
And it was Poland who struck first blood as Lewandowski ended his Euro 2016 drought before Ronaldo had even touched the ball.
Yet, rather than being revived by Ronaldo, Portugal’s saviour was Sanches as his energy, class and brilliant goal brought Fernando Santos’s men back to life.
Sanches hadn’t even started an international match before, but his impact off the bench to earn man-of-the-match from a drab 1-0 win over Croatia in the last 16 forced Santos’s hand to release him onto the big stage.
Bayern Munich’s move to seal his signature from Benfica for 35 million euros ($38 million) now looks a wise one with the reputation of one of Europe’s hottest prospects only enhanced by his showing in France.
By contrast, Ronaldo, in keeping with his displays at Euro 2016, looked slow, surly and riled by some Polish roughhouse tactics.
Sanches, by contrast, had taken control with his power and energy in midfield and got his reward.
A neat one-two with Nani opened up a sight of goal and his left-footed effort arrowed into the corner via a slight deflection off Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Ronaldo finally got the space he craved early in the second half, yet still couldn’t take advantage.
He fired wildly into the side-netting when played in behind by Nani and failed to even make contact with an embarrassing swipe at nothing but fresh air from another dangerous Nani cross.
Ronaldo’s mood only worsened. Joao Mario felt his wrath after a misplaced pass and it encouraged Polish fans to chant the name of his eternal rival for the crown of the world’s best player, Lionel Messi.
For all that he still had the moment to seize glory from a frustrating night, only to again fail to make contact with just Lukasz Fabianski to beat five minutes from time.
Another miscontrol let the scrambling Polish defence off the hook minutes into extra-time by which point Ronaldo’s rage had turned to resignation.
Indeed the swiftest piece of movement he showed all night was to dodge a pitch invader who made for the Real Madrid star in extra-time.
Ronaldo learned his lesson from Portugal’s Euro 2012 heartache against Spain when he opted to take Portugal’s final penalty and the shootout never got that far as Joao Moutinho and Bruno Alves missed.
He went first and scored. So too did Sanches, the coolness to his strike into the top corner under such pressure betraying his tender age.
In scoring Sanches had passed Ronaldo as the youngest ever scorer in the knockout stages in the Euros.
When Ronaldo nodded home against the Netherlands in the semi-finals of Euro 2004 he was stepping out of the legendary Luis Figo’s shadow to become the standard bearer for his country.
At 31 and a meeting with Real Madrid teammate Gareth Bale’s Wales or Belgium to come in the semis, Ronaldo is unlikely to ever get a better chance for international glory.
He has two hurdles left to overcome, after which the baton will be passed to Sanches.