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European champions taste Uefa Nations League glory

Ronaldo leads Portugal to new heights

This may be new – often derided – tournament, but it how he wanted to win it.

In Summary

• Ronaldo will never forget the pain he went through in 2004 when Portugal lost at home in the final of the European Championships to Greece, and he had no intention of going through a similar experience.

• Portugal were the only team in the top tier of qualifying to go through the group stages unbeaten and the thrilling way they beat Switzerland 3-1 here in the semi-finals was the standout performance of the finals. 

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo after winning the UEFA Nations League final
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo after winning the UEFA Nations League final
Image: /REUTERS

There was a moment, deep in the second half, when Cristiano Ronaldo surged back to his own penalty area and began to bark out orders.

Rui Patricio, the Wolves goalkeeper, was on the end of a lecture, as were a number of Portugal’s defenders, including the outstanding Ruben Dias. Given they had just made the breakthrough, the message Ronaldo was putting across was clear: this does not slip.

Ronaldo will never forget the pain he went through in 2004 when Portugal lost at home in the final of the European Championships to Greece, and he had no intention of going through a similar experience. This may be new – often derided – tournament, but it how he wanted to win it.

And how he enjoyed it. Then again, they all did. Portugal – the reigning European Champions, remember – worked overtime to grind out a victory that was secured thanks to Goncalo Guedes’s 60th-minute drive. For all their huff and puff, Holland couldn’t get near them.

“They are the masters of a defending a lead,” Ronald Koeman, the beaten head coach, said ruefully.

Few could begrudge Portugal for this triumph. They were the only team in the top tier of qualifying to go through the group stages unbeaten and the thrilling way they beat Switzerland 3-1 here in the semi-finals was the standout performance of the finals. Hosting the tournament is a responsibility the Portuguese have taken seriously and the mood outside the stadium beforehand was in keeping with a final — with local fans were hanging off walls and lamp-posts to see the team bus arrive.

Once inside, though, it was impossible not to see the number of empty seats dotted around the stadium. There was also a large section of England fans, who made themselves noticed with banners and boos for Virgil van Dijk every time he touched the ball.

It was a curious atmosphere – the initial fervour of the home fans blew out – and it was not helped by the way the game unfolded. This was more like chess, with both sides patiently plotting their way around the pitch as they looked for avenues to exploit.

Portugal had the better opportunities before the break and their standout performer was Bruno Fernandes, the Sporting Lisbon midfielder who continues to be linked to Manchester City. He is all class, that is for sure, and he stamped his presence quickly on the contest.

Fernandes had the first shot of the game in the 11th minute – a stinging drive that Holland keeper Jesper Cillisen turned away – and he followed up with a glorious back-heel to set up another counter-attack. It was a rare moment of ingenuity, as the two sides cancelled each other out.

All the talk before had been of the showdown between Van Dijk and Ronaldo but the only time they squared up was in the 28th minute when the Liverpool defender comfortably turned away a half-volley. Van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt remained in control and you could Ronaldo getting frustrated. Had Holland boasted a top striker, the outcome may have been different but they were limited to attempts from set pieces and the only moment they launched a counterattack, Jose Fonte did a supreme job to marshal the scurrying advances of Steven Bergwijn.

Thankfully, there was a better flow to the contest in the second period. Nobody wanted extra-time or penalties and they were committed to finding a breakthrough; the positivity led to spaces opening and you always felt the first goal would be decisive.

In the 60th minute, Portugal surged forward and the driving force behind the move was Bernardo Silva. The Manchester City midfielder was named player of the tournament and his skill, vision and determination paved the way for Guedes; Cillesen got a hand to the shot but it wasn’t enough. The way Portugal’s bench celebrated suggested they knew they had done enough and so it proved. At the final whistle, the celebrations were even more frantic and Ronaldo crowned them with an ostentatious trophy lift. He was in his element. They all were.

“Holland are a huge team with tremendous potential,” said Portugal head coach Fernando Santos. “But this will leave a lasting mark in our football history. If we look back on Euro 2016, some of the players are no longer with us. This team is a team for the future.”