Cristiano Ronaldo's struggles have turned Group F into the Group of Life
PARIS -- From the beginning, Group F seemed to be an afterthought, Euro's overlooked asterisk. Portugal would coast to an easy win, and whichever side finished second -- Austria, Hungary or Iceland -- it would never amount to more than a round-of-16 remainder. We weren't exactly looking at a group of death. But with just the last day of games to go, Group F has emerged as the most mystifying, muddy group of them all. It is the group of life, still wide open.
It's been made that way largely by Cristiano Ronaldo, one of those rare players whose performances can dictate fates far beyond his own. He has given his opponents reprieve after reprieve.
He hasn't been invisible; he's been aggressive and attacking, taking 22 shots in his first two matches, by far the most of any player in the competition. He just hasn't seen any of them into the back of the net. He was frustrated by a physical, defiant Iceland in the opener, and his postmatch comments -- dismissing the first-time entrants and what he called their "small mentality" -- betrayed a building pressure. Ronaldo has both the blessing and the curse of knowing how much is up to him.
Portugal's draw with Iceland, combined with Hungary's surprisingly energetic win against favored Austria, made Group F not only a little more interesting -- it was suddenly confounding.
Four days later, Ronaldo stood under the lights in Paris to take his soon-to-be-infamous penalty kick against Austria, a potentially decisive strike late in a then-scoreless draw. He had more than a chance to pocket an easy goal and become the first man to score in four Euros. He could single-footedly provide Group F's necessary corrections. He could deliver clarity.
He assumed his trademark duelling stance and did whatever calculations sporting geniuses do. One by one, he considered and then decided against trickery, against force, against height. He decided to pass the ball low, just inside the post, out of the keeper's reach even if he dove the right way. Maybe it says something about Ronaldo's present state of mind that he opted for the simplest of mathematics, the opposite of his Champions League Final-sealing blast for Real Madrid. Given every choice, he went for logic, like a man desperate for just a moment of understanding.
Except that the angle of his foot was off by a fraction of a degree, and the ball hit the post flush. The look on Ronaldo's face was more than disappointment, more than dismay. It was something like shock. For one of the few times in his life, he seemed unable to do what he is meant to do.
In Group F's other middle match, Iceland's Gylfi Sigurdsson didn't make the same mistake, converting his penalty chance to give his side the lead against Hungary. If Iceland had held on, they would have likely advanced, a country of 330,000 souls somehow the first of Group F's certainties. But the Hungarians pressed and pressed, and despite Iceland's earnest defense, Hungary finally broke through on Iceland's unlucky own goal: 1-1. Now Hungary were the safe ones, or at least they were nearly so.
Depending on how the rest of the group measured themselves, they were either endangered or graced.
On Wednesday, we will finally know for sure. But in the meantime, the permutations remain as endless as they ever were, and each of their results is surprising in its own way. Only Hungary will find joy in a draw. The others all need a win. Portugal will advance if they beat Hungary, and still have the chance to finish their preordained first with only five points. If Iceland can figure out a way to beat Austria, they, too, will go through, continuing their remarkable run. Reverse the results, and Hungary and Austria will advance, and Portugal and Iceland will go home. Then there are all the sums in between.
In the group of life, only the expected has been eliminated from contention.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.