It’s tempting to classify the Euro 2016 quarter-final match between Portugal and Poland as a match between teams meeting each other as they head in different directions on the slope of a graph. Resilient, exciting Poland with their sprinkling of stardust in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszcszykowski taking steady steps to become a force to reckon with. Inconsistent, irascible Portugal on a meandering sine wave, with their petulant Superman surrounded by erstwhile wannabe Superboys, who now play the role of a suspect support cast.
Portugal – still a sum of parts?
With Portugal, there has been a sense that they take two steps forward, fall on the third on their face, and then scrabble forward on all fours in desperation to retain their position among the European elite. Make no mistake, they are still heavily dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo’s peerless ability to drag them forward, but there have been a few bright spots in attack from other sources as well.
Ricardo Quaresma may lack in temperament to a certain extent, but he is a truly gifted player, capable of producing magic when on song. Portuguese coach Fernando Santos has preferred to use Renato Sanches as an impact substitute and can be expected to do the same on Thursday. The mercurial Nani alternates between being an incandescent marvel and a damp squib. Portugal will expect him to finally produce the goods, having looked threatening on occasion in this tournament. The rest of the midfield is still a work in progress, with Joao Maria, Sanches and Andre Gomes still feeling their way around the top level.
Worryingly for the Portuguese, their team hasn’t won a match in normal time yet at Euro 2016, with a draw in all three group stage games and having performed a snatch-and-grab on Croatia in the 117th minute of their Round of 16 match. They hadn’t gotten a shot on target against Croatia until that point as well. They do, however, have genuine pedigree and experience at this level and will be motivated by a run-up to the final that they would perceive to be relatively easier.
Santos can be relied upon to field a line-up that will attempt to press the Polish midfield back into their own half. He could go with a 4-3-3, making Ronaldo the focal point of the attack, or a 4-4-1-1.
Pole stars – Gutsy and resilient
Poland are a far cry from the pushovers and participation certificate specialists from the last decade. There is genuine belief in a rigid, organised unit. The goals have not exactly been forthcoming, with just three in four matches, but their midfield and defence have been very impressive.
Grzegorz Krychowiak and Bartosz Kapustka are sure to attract the attention of some of Europe’s top clubs, while Jakub Blaszcszykowski has been their world-class presence, in lieu of a jaded-looking Lewandowski. He has had a direct hand in all of Poland’s last five goals since Euro 2012, with three goals and two assists. Lukasz Fabianski has deputised ably for the injured Wojciech Sczcesny, with Pazdan and Glik the rocks in central defence in front of him.
This is, however, the first time they have progressed beyond even the group stage in this competition. Unknown territory could bring about nervousness and lapses in concentration, especially against a side like Portugal, which has some specialists in the darker arts of the sport. They will be hoping that their tactic of playing two upfront doesn’t backfire and could perhaps go with a more conservative 4-5-1 formation, aiming to catch Portugal out on the counter-attack. Lewandowski hasn’t scored for Poland since November 2015, a barren run stretching to nearly nine hours of playing time. Poland need him to be on top of his game if they are to go further than they ever have in the tournament.
A testy, irritable encounter is entirely likely, with both sides capable of stealthy tactics and frequent fouling. The first quarter-final should be an engrossing affair and, hopefully, it will be for what happens in the game as opposed to the antics outside of it.