3 things we learned as Portugal struggled to a 1-0 extra time win over Croatia

Croatia and Portugal neutralized each other so thoroughly that neither team managed a shot on goal until Portugal scored their winner late in extra time.

It took 117 minutes of play before we saw a single shot on target between Portugal and Croatia in their Euro 2016 match, but that shot proved decisive as Portugal pulled out the extra-time win on the strength of Ricardo Quaresma’s late effort.

The first half was mired in an extended feeling-out process from both teams, with both Croatia and Portugal playing a bit more conservatively than fans have been used to seeing from them so far in the tournament. There wasn’t much in the way of scoring chances for either team, with time on the ball in the final third at a premium — Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandžukić had less than fifty touches between the two of them as their team’s most advanced attackers.

The second half, though, was a different story. Both teams kicked up the aggression a notch and kept building it up as the game went on. Croatia were able to use long balls from Luke Modric and Darijo Srna to stretch Portugal out, opening up opportunities for Mandžukić, Ivan Perišić, and Marcelo Brozović to try to exploit. Portugal were finding their own improved attacking play at the other end, with Nani succeeding at using his pace to try to get in behind Croatia’s defense and unsettle them, at one point looking somewhat unlucky not to draw a penalty from Ivan Strinić.

As the game progressed and neither team could score, though, things started to bog down a bit more again, with neither side wanting to give up a late winner. That conservative play lead to one very unfortunate statistic when the full-time whistle blew after 90 minutes — neither team had gotten off even one shot on target.

Extra time didn’t start much better, with the highlights of the first 15 minutes being Nikola Kalinić completely mis-hitting a shot after managing to get in behind the Portuguese defense, followed several minutes later by Ricardo Quaresma slipping and falling while delivering a free kick. Croatia were actually managing to get shots away in the first extra time period, but they were all low-percentage chances aside from Kalinić’s missed opportunity, and still none of them were on target.

Croatia pushed to turn those chances into something more productive in the second half of extra time, but Portugal were the ones who took advantage of their best chance of the game. After a period of sustained Croatian attacking pressure, Portugal were able to launch forward on a counter against a heavily fatigued Croatian defense — ending in Cristiano Ronaldo getting the first shot on target of the game, a host that was saved by Danijel Subašić, but the ball deflected into the path of Ricardo Quaresma at the far post, who put the chance away and won the game for Portugal.

It was a dramatic shift in fortunes after it looked like Croatia were the ones who had a chance to score before the game went to penalties, but instead it was Portugal celebrating a huge Euro 2016 round of 16 triumph. Now they’re moving on to the quarterfinals, with a matchup against Poland beckoning. That’s a matchup that Portugal will feel good about as they match up well against Poland, their style and best talents looking like the should be able to exploit Poland’s weaknesses. Croatia, meanwhile, will be searching for answers, because they’ll feel like they could and should have gone much deeper in this tournament than they did.

Croatia: Danijel Subašić; Darijo Srna, Vedran Ćorluka, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinić; Milan Badelj, Luka Modrić; Marcelo Brozović, Ivan Rakitić (Marko Pjaca 110′), Ivan Perišić; Mario Mandžukić (Nikola Kalinić 88′)

Goals: None

Portugal: Rui Patrício; Cédric Soares, Pepe, José Fonte, Raphaël Guerreiro; João Mário (Ricardo Quaresma 87′), Adrien Silva (Danilo Pereira 108′), William Carvalho, André Gomes (Renato Sanches 50′); Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo

Goal: Quaresma (117′)

Three things we learned

Croatia weren’t in sync in attack

One of the hallmarks of Croatia’s run through the group stage, and even during their Euro qualifying run, was how well their attack worked in sync with one another. Brilliantly timed supporting runs, clever linking passes to an attacker lurking behind the play, someone making that box-crashing run to follow-up a shot — they were always putting in that extra bit of effort and timing it perfectly for the greatest impact in the final third.

Against Portugal, that wasn’t the case. Too often those supporting runs would come two or three beats late, rebounds would fly away with no one pounding in to get a shot off, someone would look for an outlet or to flick the ball on and find no teammate available to help. Croatia were playing more conservatively to be sure, but something beyond that happened to throw all of their timing and coordination off in the final third, and their attack suffered badly for it.

Renato Sanches was a big and positive change for Portugal

Part of Portugal’s second-half improvement was manager Fernando Santos unleashing his side more than he had in the first half, but Santos’ decision to bring in Sanches was also huge. The young midfielder came on for an unimpressive André Gomes and instantly made a huge impression, bringing energy and thrust back into the side, getting forward out of midfield well, and driving play to his attackers better than any Portugal midfielder had in the first half.

Sanches may just be a teenager, but he’s wonderfully skilled and plays with an excellent understanding of the game and what’s going on around him. Bayern Munich just made a huge investment to bring him in from Benfica, and the more we see of Sanches, the more that looks like a smart decision by the German powerhouse — especially after it was Sanches’ run up the pitch on a counter-attack that helped create Portugal’s winning goal.

Croatia did brilliantly to neutralize Cristiano Ronaldo until the end

Portugal’s biggest star and perhaps the most talented player at Euro 2016, Ronaldo has the ability to take over a game on his own and change the entire run of play. Croatia knew that and planned accordingly, using a clever marking scheme to try to keep him in check — and it worked. Milan Badelj would track him back through midfield, then as Ronaldo would approach the back line, Vedran Ćorluka would step up to pick him up, while Badelj kept lurking overhead to keep Ronaldo from having space to retreat and find space again. If Portugal had been paying closer attention, they could have used Nani to run through the spaces Ćorluka was leaving to mark Ronaldo, but they didn’t — and Ronaldo didn’t get a single shot off in the first 117 minutes of the match because of it — but when he did, the rebound turned into the one goal Portugal needed to win.

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