Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal endure scoreless nightmare vs. Austria
Three observations from Portugal's 0-0 draw versus Austria in Group F action on Saturday at the Parc des Princes in Paris.
1. Penalty miss compounds Ronaldo's nightmare evening
Karma? Hubris? Plain bad luck? This could hardly have been a more disastrous night for Cristiano Ronaldo, and the smiles will be equally wide in Vienna and Reykjavik. If the Portugal striker was keen to deliver postmatch analysis after the draw with Iceland, he might be a little less forthcoming after his penalty miss that leaves a huge question mark over his team's prospects in Euro 2016.
The moment that defined this match -- and perhaps Ronaldo's entire tournament -- came 11 minutes from time. Ronaldo had already missed a number of chances when, with Portugal applying near-incessant pressure, he was hauled down by a faltering Martin Hinteregger inside the box. A penalty was the only possible decision, and it seemed that, just as in the Champions League final, Portugal's talisman would end up the hero on a night that had otherwise been full of frustration.
This time there was no fairy-tale ending. Ronaldo's spot kick was struck low and true but, with Austria goalkeeper Robert Almer diving to his left, the ball thudded off the opposite post. It was a barely believable event -- an exhibition of pure mortality from a player who rarely evinces any, and one of a dwindling number of opportunities for the 31-year-old to stamp his mark on another major tournament.
The first indication that this, once more, would not be Ronaldo's night came halfway through the opening period. Nani's cutback pass, provided after a fine linkup with Raphael Guerreiro, would have been converted unfussily by an in-form Ronaldo, but instead he side-footed wide from 10 yards. He then failed to get enough power on a shot off Ricardo Quaresma's header -- a harder chance, but one he will upbraid himself for missing.
For all Ronaldo's profligacy at that stage, there was no doubting his appetite to seize the initiative. For a period at the start of the second half, he was a one-man attacking force, hammering a long-range free kick against the wall -- his 35th at a major tournament, with no goals resulting -- before thrashing a low left-footer that Almer did superbly to tip around the post. From the resulting corner, Almer was again sharp to save a trademark towering header. By then, Ronaldo's annoyance was more than evident, but this ended up being just the tip of the iceberg.
2. Alaba endures his own night of toil
If it was not Ronaldo's night, then how do we assess David Alaba? The Austrian playmaker and Bayern Munich man was replaced in the 65th minute by Alessandro Schopf, and it spoke volumes about Alaba's performance in a game he simply did not get involved in. Alaba completed just 12 passes and, like Ronaldo, there is the genuine risk now that Alaba's Euro 2016 will end with a whimper.
To give Alaba his due, he never looked comfortable in the role he was handed by manager Marcel Koller. Austria's pack had been reshuffled after their 2-0 defeat to Hungary, and Alaba had been moved into the No. 10 position in place of the injured Zlatko Junuzovic. In theory, it suits Alaba's energy and guile; in practice, it meant the deep midfield pair of Julian Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilsanker lacked exactly what Alaba offers when stationed farther back. The pair struggled to set any tempo and failed to provide decent possession to those ahead of them.
It meant Alaba was too often isolated, and his pocket between the holders and striker Marcel Sabitzer -- preferred to the towering Marc Janko here -- resembled more of a chasm. William Carvalho handled Alaba expertly, and Alaba's only real moment of influence came before the break when a whipped free kick was cleared superbly by Vieirinha as Martin Harnik waited to pounce.
Harnik had already missed Austria's only clear opening, heading a Sabitzer cross wide in the third minute when he seemed certain to score. Perhaps a goal at that stage would have afforded Alaba more space in which to roam. Instead, his night was cut short, and it seemed a touch perverse when, 17 minutes from time, Austria were awarded a free kick in the kind of position that Alaba's left foot relishes. Alaba was long gone by then, and what Austria contrived instead -- an intricate routine botched by Sabitzer -- summed up their night's attacking efforts.
Like Portugal, Austria can progress with victory on the final matchday -- but if Alaba cannot hit the groove against Iceland, the spectre of an unexpected early flight home looms large.
3. Portugal may regret profligate night
Portugal will wonder how they did not win this game, and Ronaldo was not the only culprit. They could have had the game wrapped up by half-time. This was a much more aggressive, assertive showing, and the changes made by manager Fernando Santos -- Quaresma and Carvalho both coming in -- instantly gave them a sharper feel. Carvalho won his first duel with Alaba and stuck to the Austria playmaker like glue; Quaresma was also heavily involved, but it was another forward, Nani, who created Portugal's first opportunity via a header. Nani was then denied by the legs of Almer after beating Sebastian Prodl too easily, and the goalkeeper then had to tip wide a Vieirinha pile driver. There was an even closer call when Nani nodded against the post; with Ronaldo's misses factored in, there was a nagging sense that a dominant Portugal would regret their profligacy.
The openings kept on coming after the interval, with Ronaldo taking centre stage before and after his penalty miss. Portugal comfortably had the better of an Austria side that looked leaden-footed in defence and ponderous in midfield, but the cutting edge to match their performance was simply not there. Portugal will require a win over Hungary to guarantee their place in the last 16, and while a similar display would surely bring greater reward, the thought must have occurred to them that fortune is not smiling this summer.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.