Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ronaldo magic zaps Czechs

EURO 2008: Portugal 3:1 Czech Republic (Deco 8', Sionko 16', Ronaldo 63', Quaresma 90'), Stade de Geneve, Geneva

Portugal became the first team into the knockout stages after ousting the Czech Republic 3-1 in Geneva.

Cristiano Ronaldo, widely touted to be the start of the tournament, was instrumental in all three goals.

His dribble in the eight minute allowed Deco to hand Portugal the lead. He then followed it up with a solo strike in the 63rd and then turned provider for Ricardo Quaresma to seal the game with seconds remaining.

The Czechs had drawn level through Libor Sionko, the first equalising goal of the tournament, but in the end, quality won through over hard graft.

Following a quiet opening, Portugal sprinted into an 8th-minute lead through Deco.

Cristiano Ronaldo on the left wing was the instigator, slipping between two defenders before playing a 1-2 with Nuno Gomes and almost rounding Petr Cech to score himself. Deco scooped up the loose ball and netted courtesy of a deflection off Marek Jankulovski.

It took until the 16th minute for the Czechs to find some fluency, Zdenek Greygera finding Milan Baros with a curling centre, but the Portsmouth striker's header was too high.

A minute later they were level with stunning simplicity: A whipped in corner from Jaroslav Plasil on the right and a textbook bullet header on the run from winger Libor Sionko.

Italian ref Roberto Rosetti made few friends in the 30,000 arena, with both sets of fans whistling several of his calls at ear-splitting volume.

Ronaldo played a quiet first half in cruise control. But his snap contributions were telling. It was his dribble which led to Deco scoring and in the 42nd minute, an impromptu missile from 25 yards was only kept out by an airborne Petr Cech, who also blocked his dipping free kick at the end of the first 45.

The second half began slowly but eight minutes in, Nuno Gomes came to life with a pair of efforts saved by Cech.

Portugal again threatened when Deco slipped Simao into the box in the 58th and Cech had to save with his legs.

Three minutes after the hour their persistence paid off as Ronaldo ghosted in to meet Deco's precise cross on the edge of the box and rifled a grasscutter into the net.

Portugal looked to be cantering to a win but almost conceded again when Milan Baros evaded marking for a free header in the 78th minute, directed agonisingly wide.

With the 35 year-old giant Jan Koller also now stomping around up frontld, it was no time to count chickens, Portugal's national symbol.

Five minutes later it was Sionko who exposed the Portuguese's slackening marking with another unmarked header, tipped over by an alert Ricardo in goal.

But despite a couple of Ricardo interventions in the closing minutes and a couple of scares in the box, the Czechs failed to land a second killer punch and with their red shirts pushed upfield, Portugal added a killer third with seconds remaining. Ronaldo broke free and squared for Quaresma to slot home into an empty net.

Portugal play eliminated Switzerland on Sunday assured of a place in the last eight, while the Czechs must look for three points in their final game against Turkey.

Four years ago, the Czech Republic were the strongest team in Europe. But today in sunny Geneva, the game belonged to the scarf-spinning red and green thousands, who happen to be Switzerland's largest expat community to boot.

Dreaming of more Ronaldo magic, Portugal steam on.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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