Soccer-Cautious Czechs shackle Ronaldo but get caught out by Conceicao


  • Football
  • Wednesday, 19 Jun 2024

Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Group F - Portugal v Czech Republic - Leipzig Stadium, Leipzig, Germany - June 18, 2024 Portugal's Francisco Conceicao celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

LEIPZIG, Germany (Reuters) - The Czech Republic were made to pay for a cautious approach designed to contain Cristiano Ronaldo when late substitute Francisco Conceicao popped up to score a stoppage-time goal and give Portugal a 2-1 win in their Euro 2024 opener on Tuesday.

The Czech gamble - conceding possession and defending in numbers - looked set to pay off with a valuable point in their first group game, but a calamitous closing half-hour from defender Robin Hranac saw them leave Leipzig empty-handed.

Ronaldo may no longer have explosive pace, and defenders gave up biting on his feints and step-overs long ago, but he retains an uncanny sense of timing when heading the ball and from the start begged his team mates for crosses into the box.

The Czechs knew exactly what he wanted to do and their entire game plan seemed to centre on stopping him from scoring.

For the most part, it worked.

Coach Ivan Hasek deployed a line of five players, and occasionally six, across the back, sending one man shuttling out to cover the player in possession and then scurrying back into position to seal off the seams in which Ronaldo usually thrives.

The 39-year-old forward persisted, raising his hand to look for crosses and through balls, but wave after wave of Portuguese attacks foundered on the rock-solid Czech backline.

Having not had one effort on target all game, the Czechs somehow took the lead thanks to a superb Lukas Provod strike in the 62nd minute but, rather than calming their players down, the goal seemed to cause them to lose their composure entirely, and when the wheels came off, Ronaldo was never too far away.

STRIKING DISTANCE

The Portugal captain was lurking within striking distance when Czech goalkeeper Jindrich Stanek spilled the ball against the legs of the hapless Hranac and into the net.

Then Ronaldo's header off the post that saw Diogo Jota score what looked to be the equaliser was exactly the kind of ball he wanted all night.

The VAR intervened though and the goal was chalked off for offside, but Ronaldo kept running and pointing, confident that the Czechs would finally wilt, and they did.

The winner came in stoppage time as Hranac botched a clearance and, with Ronaldo attracting the rest of the Czech defence to himself like a magnet, Conceicao, who had come on two minutes earlier for Vitinha, swept the ball home.

Hasek's side may have lost in stoppage time but the video of it will become the template for any team trying to beat Portugal at the Euros, such was the effectiveness of their tactics.

The Portuguese dominated the game, registering 70% possession, 13 corners and 19 attempts, but it took an own goal and a defensive blunder to undo all their good work.

For Portugal coach Roberto Martinez it will be a wake-up call. Ronaldo can still influence the outcome of games even without touching the ball, but if he can be shackled this easily then his team may struggle.

(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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