Euro 2016: Final countdown begins

Top: Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo takes a wefie as he is surrounded by supporters who must surely be concerned about their team's inability to win a game in regulation time. Above: Wales talisman Gareth Bale signs autographs for fans.
Above: Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo takes a wefie as he is surrounded by supporters who must surely be concerned about their team's inability to win a game in regulation time. Above: Wales talisman Gareth Bale signs autographs for fans.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Top: Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo takes a wefie as he is surrounded by supporters who must surely be concerned about their team's inability to win a game in regulation time. Above: Wales talisman Gareth Bale signs autographs for fans.
Above: Wales talisman Gareth Bale signs autographs for fans.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Bale and Ronaldo to rule Wales-Portugal semi-final, while France are favoured against World Cup champions Germany

SEMI-FINAL 1 Portugal v Wales

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In Lyon, the battle of the one-man teams. In Marseille, the clash of the teams of the tournament.

That, at least, is the billing. The Euro 2016 semi-finals can be portrayed as Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gareth Bale, and France against Germany.

The former description is a simplification, but also an illustration of the potential trump cards. Portugal and Wales each possess a player with the X factor and the capacity to win almost any game single-handedly.

The paradox is that Portugal have not actually won any matches in 90 minutes. A more accurate depiction, perhaps, is that of a team that have yet to reach their potential against one who are greater than the sum of their parts.

Wales' motto - "Together Stronger" - is apt and they have played better than Portugal so far, but Fernando Santos' side have more talent. Demonstrate it and Paris may beckon.

Both sides will be shaped by absentees. Aaron Ramsey, who has been almost as influential as Bale, is suspended. The likely alternatives, Jonny Williams and Andy King, have neither his dynamism nor his gifts.

Portugal's problem is that William Carvalho, the tank of a defensive midfielder who would have been detailed to subdue Bale, is also banned. Portugal's fate could instead rest with his deputy, Danilo, or Joao Moutinho.

  • FIGURING OUT THE MATCH-UP

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    THE MAN: CRISTIANO RONALDO Cristiano Ronaldo will be the first man to play in three semi-finals. He could also be the third to score in more than one after Viktor Ponedelnik and Valentin Ivanov, who both netted for the Soviet Union in 1960 and 1964.

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    HIS TEAM: PORTUGAL Portugal have drawn their last six Euro Finals matches after 90 minutes, including five in this tournament.

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    THE MAN: GARETH BALE Gareth Bale has been less involved in Wales' goals at the Finals, where he had three goals and one assist (40 per cent of 10 goals ) than in qualifying, where he scored seven and created two (82 per cent of 11 goals).

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    HIS TEAM: WALES Wales have never made it this far. Their previous best was in 1976, when they lost to Yugoslavia 1-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.

And decisions pose difficulties. Santos somehow reached the last four without finding his strongest side. Remarkably, he got to the quarter-finals before starting Renato Sanches, the forceful figure who could be the dominant personality in the midfield.

His greater difficulty may lie in the defence. The excellent Pepe is a doubt while both full-backs look like potential weak links, something Bale may note.

Equally, Ronaldo could look to exploit the left of the Welsh defence, where the slower James Collins is set to stand in for the banned Ben Davies. It renders Portugal favourites.

Home advantage could confer the same status on France. The deciding factor, however, may be the depleted team Joachim Low will have to field, minus Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez.

The probability is he will jettison a back three and revert to 4-2-3-1. Germany had solved their striking conundrum with Gomez; now Low has a dilemma again.

Thomas Muller may lead the line but, so often a strength, the misfiring talisman may be a weakness now while the untried Julian Weigl may be parachuted into midfield.

Germany's reasons for optimism may derive from their formidable mentality, their terrific record in tournaments and the quality of Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng, respectively the best goalkeeper and centre-back so far.

Yet, in a rarity, the World Cup winners start as underdogs. France have finally found a formula, a 4-4-2 with Antoine Griezmann in a central role that has enabled them to score seven goals in their last 123 minutes.

They have the greatest attacking armoury of the surviving teams. Dimitri Payet is rivalling Griezmann for the Golden Boot and the top scorer's title.

Manager Didier Deschamps could recall N'Golo Kante to track Low's attacking midfielders but Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi have belatedly been spurred into form without him and they possess more power in midfield than Germany.

The question is if France's flair can compensate for defensive deficiencies. They have yet to face elite opposition, so while Iceland highlighted their frailties at the back, they have not been costly. The ageing full-backs are not at their best and France have struggled to defend crosses and set-pieces.

They may offer the best avenue for a tall German team, who knocked them out of the World Cup two years ago with a Hummels header from a free kick.

But their attacking impetus means France should advance. Ronaldo may personalise his duel with Bale and his blend of fervent desire and incessant shooting could prove decisive. The hosts and premier European talent could converge in Paris.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Final countdown begins'. Print Edition | Subscribe