With stars Ronaldo, Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, and Mandzukic on display, many were expecting an exciting affair filled with tons of chances.
Croatia vs. Portugal time! This one should be excellent. Game of the tournament potential. Get to ESPN.— SB Nation Soccer (@SBNationSoccer) June 25, 2016
I'm weirdly really excited for Croatia/Portugal if only because I think there's a decent chance for a 3-3 classic between these two— Moe^2 (@MoeSquare) June 25, 2016
But oh how wrong we all were. The game started off inauspiciously, with Croatia dominating possession but failing to do much with it. Portugal sat back into a deep defensive shape and chose to use old school rough and tumble tactics to break Croatia's rhythm. It worked well enough, as Croatia were lethargic and lacked penetration. But Portugal had to face the flip side of their style, as Fernando Santos' decision to park the bus meant that Ronaldo was left isolated. This resulted in the first half being an utter bore.
Unfortunately for everyone, the exact same continued. Ronaldo and Nani remained isolated as Portugal continued to foul and break up play endlessly, whilst Croatia played like they were covered in sticky pudding. The obvious end result was extra time, which obviously led to no improvement in play.
Things did get slightly more exciting in the last minutes of the match, as Croatia missed a chance and smacked a shot off the bar, but it wasn't to be their night, as Ronaldo won possession of the ball in his own half and made a superb sprint to receive the ball after good work from Renato Sanches. The Portuguese forward's shot was the first on target of the night, and even though the keeper saved it, the rebound was put in by Ricardo Quaresma.
The result was cruel for Croatia, but in the end they can't claim that they deserved to win.
Portugal shouldn't feel too smug either. Their conservative tactics stunted any creativity from anywhere and if the referee had been less lenient they might've had a man sent off.
Despite Portugal's dirty tactics, Pepe registered only one foul and managed to play a comparatively clean game. He also completely shackled Mario Mandzukic and protected Portugal's box like a lion. He ended the game with 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, and a stunning 9 clearances. Man of the match.
The Portuguese forward had an incredibly quiet game due to Fernando Santos' strangling tactics (had only 1 shot). Despite this he made a crucial impact on the match when he won the ball deep in his own half and sparked the sequence of play that led to the goal.
Modric was clearly not 100% fit tonight as he simply couldn't stamp his impact on the game. Too many passes went awry, too many driving runs failed, and too many times he drifted out of the game completely. The tears he spilled afterwards broke the heart, especially when considering that Modric could've made the difference had he been fitter.