Cristiano Ronaldo's misses define Portugal's scoreless draw with Austria
PARIS -- Start at the end, and maybe we'll begin to understand -- or not.
Moments after the final whistle of a 0-0 draw between Portugal and Austria at the Parc des Princes in Paris, the players are shaking hands and chatting as they do normally do postgame. A guy dressed in black sprints onto the pitch from the Austrian end and makes a bee-line toward the knot of players by the center circle. A single, solitary steward chases him. That's right: Just one guy pursues the interloper while everybody else stares.
He reaches Cristiano Ronaldo, and by this point, there are team officials and others around. It's hard to tell what happens from the press box, but the next thing you see isn't security escorting the pitch invader away.
It's the guy reaching into his pocket and pulling out a phone. Then Ronaldo happily poses with him for a selfie.
We're in Paris, the site of brutal terrorist attacks just a few months ago. There are law enforcement officials with automatic weapons all around the venues. We've had fighting between sets of fans in the stands, we've had flares on the pitch, and above all, we have had terrorist threats. But all a guy has to do to get on the pitch and get a selfie with one of the world's most famous footballers is outrun a man in an orange vest.
As for the game itself, neither team had much to cheer. The two pre-tournament favorites to advance from Group F have yet to win. It's not surprising that Portugal boss Fernando Santos said that his team needs to treat every game left in the tournament like a series of finals. Win them all, and you become European champion.
The pregame tactical lineups showed Portugal lining up in a 4-4-2, with Nani and Ronaldo up top and Andre Gomes and Ricardo Quaresma out wide. Maybe it was some attempt at misdirection from somebody at the Portuguese FA, or maybe there had been a last-minute change of heart. Whatever the case, it most certainly wasn't a 4-4-2.
Quaresma joined Nani and Ronaldo in a front three from the first minute. Maybe Fernando Santos wanted to try something a little different after the opening game draw against Iceland. Or maybe he thought this could be Portugal's version of Real Madrid's "BBC," except Nani isn't Karim Benzema and Quaresma is anything but Gareth Bale. Also, this Cristiano is more the off-day, weight-of-the-world-on-his-shoulders version.
It began with a big smile and a fist pump at the end of the Portuguese national anthem. Then, while his teammates took up their positions on the pitch, he tarried a moment at the sideline, pouring water on his hands in some kind of ritual ablution, perhaps to make his 128th national team appearance, and broke the record held by Luis Figo, who was watching from the stands.
He can be accused of many things, but not even his harshest critics would suggest he is one who hides when it matters. From the very first corner, when he tussled with Stefan Ilsanker and nearly ran into the post, this game seemed to revolve around him. A few minutes later, after Quaresma ignored his run to the flank and opted instead to aimlessly pass it inside, he gave his teammate an earful.
Just after the 20-minute mark came Ronaldo's first real chance. A lovely combination between Nani and Raphael Guerreiro left him with an easy (for him) side-foot finish, but Ronaldo put it just wide. Moments later, Nani sent a header off the post. It was Portugal's best spell of the first half, and it was made possible in part by Austria's difficulties in midfield.
David Alaba might be a footballing Swiss army knife, but Marcel Koller's decision to stick him in the hole behind Martin Harnik (Marc Janko was dropped) yielded few dividends. Austria simply failed to get him the ball and too often the hulking William Carvalho simply eclipsed him. Whatever he was meant to do, it wasn't working, and unsurprisingly, Koller yanked him after 65 minutes. After the match, he said "there was no reason for him to be upset."
Meanwhile, Ronaldo was popping up intermittently at the other end, including scuffing a shot Robert Almer saved and occasionally chatting to the referee, Nicola Rizzoli. Austria's first real chance of the first half didn't come until the 41st minute, when Alaba's free kick flashed across the goal mouth, only for Vieirinha to clear just before Martin Harnik got a limb to it.
Ilsanker forced a good save out of Rui Patricio to start the second half, and perhaps this was when Portugal realized there was only one of two ways they were going to win this. Either Fernando Santos would conjure up a more rational way of playing than his replica "BBC" -- "QNC" doesn't have the same ring, just one letter away from being the name of a home-shopping network -- or Cristiano would have to step up. He tried. Two of his trademark free kicks (deep breath, wide stance, ball cowering because it knows it's about to get leathered) yielded nothing. One was smacked into the wall, and the other sailed over the crossbar.
That brought the number of free kicks taken in major tournaments to 36. The count, as compiled by stats maven @2010MisterChip on Twitter, is as follows: 13 failing to clear the bar, 12 out, 10 saved by the keeper and one hitting the woodwork. On a team that also includes a specialist such as Joao Moutinho, perhaps a bit of variety would not go amiss.
Sandwiched between his free kicks was another chance. Pepe, of all people, intercepted a ball and rumbled menacingly into the Austrian half before laying it off to (who else?) Ronaldo. His shot was hard and tricky, but Almer batted it away. On the ensuing corner kick, it was Ronaldo, again, who seemingly levitated in the air and won the header. Again, Almer did well to save.
Quaresma, a passenger for much of the game, had made way for Joao Mario. Nani would follow later, but really, it was all about Ronaldo. Thirteen minutes from time, he burst into the box and ran into Martin Hinteregger. Both men had their arms up, there was a quick wrestle, and then Ronaldo went down. Penalty and yellow card. Replays showed the decision was correct and, most likely, made with the help of the assistant referee behind the goal.
Up stepped Ronaldo for the win and ... he whacked the ball off the post to Almer's right. A brief nod of the head followed by a jog back up the pitch as Austria celebrated. Moments later, he had the ball in the back of the net, but it was rightly disallowed for offside.
Fernando Santos was the more bullish of the two coaches at the end. He pointed to the many opportunities created (and missed) and reminded everyone that it was the first time since he became Portugal boss that the team failed to score. He wouldn't discuss Ronaldo's game or the selfie.
"I don't talk about Cristiano Ronaldo," he barked, before adding that he never "talked about individuals."
That's fine; there are plenty of people talking about Cristiano. It suits him just fine both in good times and, like tonight, in bad. As we said, he doesn't hide.
More than the game though, once again, the security arrangements left a lot to be desired. It's becoming a near daily thing, and someone needs to do something about it. If UEFA can't, let it be the police.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.