Portugal will face Poland in the quarter-finals of EURO 2016 next Thursday after defeating Croatia 1-0 (AET) in Saturday’s final Round of 16 clash inside Lens’ Stade Felix Bollaert-Deleis.
Substitute Ricardo Quaresma struck the decisive blow in the 116th minute of play after this drab last-16 affair was forced into extra-time, where Portugal’s last-gasp winner preserved their 100% record against the Group D winners – having now won all four meetings with the Blazers.
Manager Ante Cacic returned to his preferred starting XI for Croatia which he named during their opening two EURO 2016 fixtures – meaning key men Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic started inside the Stade Felix Bollaert-Delelis.
Meanwhile opposing boss Fernando Santos brought in three players for their first start of the finals following Portugal’s 3-3 draw against Hungary on Wednesday – drafting in Adrien Silva, plus defenders Jose Fonte and Cedric Soares.
Plus, former Manchester United winger Nani won his 100th international cap in Lens.
Despite their being plenty of pre-match hype ahead of kick-off; especially with Croatia having ended defending champions Spain’s 14-game unbeaten run at the European Championships, the first-half was one to forget.
A cagey opening, where neither nation could open each other up in any third of the pitch, finally boasted its first goalscoring opportunity in the 25th minute – but Raphael Guerreiro’s splendid free-kick was wastefully headed over by fellow defender Pepe for Portugal, despite the Real Madrid looking offside.
Five minutes later; Ivan Perisic – who has scored or assisted seven goals at major tournaments for the Blazers – finally threatened the Portuguese back four, but his shot dragged wide of the near post after cutting inside onto his left foot from the right flank.
Referee Carlos Velasco Carballo’s half-time whistle was well received after a dull opening 45 minutes, although fans inside the Stade Felix Bollaert-Delelis were desperately hoping play after the restart would be much more inspired.
And just seven minutes into the second period, Croatia came bursting out of the blocks, thankfully. Santos’ defence were completely unaware Croatia had activated a quick corner, giving Ivan Rakitic the opportunity to pick out Marcelo Brozovic from close-range, but he scuffed his shot wide.
Just before the hour mark; substitute Renato Sanches played a lovely one-two with Joao Mario just outside the Croatian penalty area, but his first-time shot on the return was dragged well wide of the mark.
Moments later; a delightful free-kick delivery from Darijo Srna found the head of Blazers centre-half Domagoj Vida, but his effort was just inches away from breaking the deadlock at the far post.
After the referee waved away Portugal’s claims for a penalty after left-back Ivan Strinic kicked an advancing Nani in the 18-yard area, the game came to a complete standstill.
In fact; the remainder of the game produced no further goalscoring opportunities, meaning after 90 minutes in Lens – neither Croatia or Portugal registered a single shot on target. Bore!
So; into extra-time we went, as Perisic tried to lob goalkeeper Rui Patricio with a long-range header, before substitute Nikola Kalinic blazed a decent effort high and wide – the wait went on for a first shot on target…
Eight minutes into the second-half of extra-time; Croatian centre-half Vida spurned another glorious chance to net a much anticipated match winner as a corner completely drew Portugal’s Rui Patricio into no mans land, but the Dynamo Kyiv defender couldn’t quite rise high enough to steer it home.
Ultimately, that proved oh so costly! As after the lively Perisic came even closer to breaking the deadlock after smacking the post at one end, the Blazers were left stunned as Portugal immediately broke on the counter-attack where a largely quiet Cristiano Ronaldo was fed the ball on the right flank by Nani.
The Real Madrid star selfishly shot from an acute angle, only for the ball to kindly bounce off of Croatian shot stopper Danijel Subasic and straight into the fortunate path of Quaresma – who nodded home the all-important shot on target from a couple of yards out after coming on after 87 minutes.
Quaresma’s tap-in ended Portugal’s run of their last seven goals at the European Championships being scored by either Ronaldo (five) or Nani (two) – as Fernando Santos’ side advance to the last-eight of the tournament, despite drawing every game after 90 minutes.
Man of the Match: Renato Sanches (Portugal)
Despite not starting the match inside the Stade Felix Bollaert-Delelis, super sub Sanches shone for the victorious Portuguese after quickly helping his nation overturn possession in the centre of the park with his strength and power.
After replacing the ineffective Andre Gomes just five minutes after the break; FC Bayern Munich’s new €35m signing from Benfica took control of the game and eventually gave Portugal the upper hand heading into extra-time after providing his teammates the energy boost they needed.
The 18-year-old, who was linked with a move to Manchester United back in January, demonstrated his powerful prowess by fending off the likes of Modric, Rakitic and Brozovic in the middle of the park to help feed Portuguese forwards Ronaldo, Nani and Quaresma more as the game went on.
Ultimately his hard work paid off with his team’s late, late winner; although Sanches was unlikely to not steal the limelight himself after working a slick one-two with Joao Mario from 20 yards out, but his first-time shot was rushed and skidded well wide of the mark.
Full of energy, creativity and remarkable strength for a teenager; national team coach will surely draft Sanches into Portugal’s starting XI in the next round.
With Croatia sent home; victors Portugal will face Poland in the quarter-finals of EURO 2016 after Adam Nawałka’s men edged past Switzerland 5-4 on penalties (1-1 AET) earlier on Saturday afternoon, with the match taking place inside Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Thursday, June 30.