My sympathies for Blaszczykowski

Blaszczykowski, who had a wonderful tournament till then stopped on his track to see the movement of Rui Patricio in the penalty shoot-out. But to his credit, the goalkeeper stood his ground, judging the direction of the kick correctly and keeping it out with a strong hand.

Rui Patricio of Portugal saves a penalty by Jakub Blaszczykowski of Poland during the penalty shoou-out.   -  Getty Images

Last night’s Portugal vs. Poland game started with a bang with Robert Lewandowski finding the net in the second minute of the game. A quick interchange of play found Kamil Grosicki on the left and the winger found his skipper inside the box, who did marvellously well to open up his body to slot his left footer on the bottom corner of the net. It is not easy for a striker to open up his body when a ball is coming from the left and Lewandowski’s movement and finish were sublime in nature. Poland continued to enjoy the early advantage with most of the attack building from the left hand side with Artur Jedrzejczyk and Grosicki combining well.

The Portuguese forward players were guilty of far too many interchanges with the team failing to find a focal point in attack for large stretches of the first session. Ronaldo and Nani at the head of a 4-4-2 formation regularly changed positions with Renato Sanches and Joao Mario and the Polish defence did well to keep a tab on them.

Sanches’ goal came at the right time for Portugal with 12 minutes left for the half. The Polish defence was caught napping there with the centre-back failing to track the run of Nani inside the box. His back-heel was perfectly weighed and again the defence failed to close in on Sanches who struck a rasping drive, which took a deflection before going in. Fabianski, in the Polish goal, perhaps would have reached the ball if not for the deflection.

The game slowed down after the break with both sides opting for a more cautious approach. Poland, which often pressed high, playing a high line in the first half, sat back with Portugal enjoying more of the possession. Joao Moutinho, who replaced Adrien Silva in the 73rd minute found Ronaldo in space with a sublime chip in the 86th minute. But the former Ballon d’Or winner fluffed the chance failing to make a connection.

Thankfully for Ronaldo and Portugal, Jakub Blaszczykowski’s miss form the fourth spot kick handed it a victory. Blaszczykowski, who had a wonderful tournament till then stopped on his track to see the movement of Rui Patricio. But to his credit, the goalkeeper stood his ground, judging the direction of the kick correctly and keeping it out with a strong hand. It was more a great save than a bad spot kick. The Borussia Dortmund player had correctly directed his shot to the corner but the stop-stutter run failed to give it the adequate punch.

My sympathies for Kuba!

Tonight, Belgium starts as the clear favourite in its game against Wales. Studded with attacking talent, Marc Wilmots will expect his boys to enjoy majority of the possession and wear Wales down. The manager, however, will miss the services of the experienced Jan Vertonghen and Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen in defence. The Tottenham defender tore two of his three external ligaments in his ankle during training and Vermaelen sits out after seeing two yellow cards.

Jordan Lukaku is expected to come in as the left-back with Jason Denayer filling in for Vermaelen in the centre. The collective experience of the duo will be hard to replace. Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan, scorer of a stunner against Sweden in Belgium's last group game, sitting deeper in the midfield in a 4-3-3 system, will need to fall back and marshal the inexperienced backline.

The Belgians were particularly guilty of leaving too much open space in the middle of the field in the game against Italy with Witsel and Naingollan playing too high up the pitch, failing to drop back to protect the centre-backs. The team would have done well to have a holding player ahead of the defence.

Wales, which can hit quick on the counter, will ruthlessly exploit any such pace with Gareth Bale and Robson-Kanu, sure to start, making runs behind the defence. In Taylor and Grunter, Chris Coleman has too tireless runners in the wing and the duo will be quick to bring the ball out of the back, releasing Bale and Kanu. It will be vital for Hazard and Mertens to counter these runs, tracking back to help the defence. The defensive work of the duo has been far from satisfactory in this year’s event.

The Belgians will enjoy the bulk of possession with skipper Hazard combining with Kevin de Bruyne and Mertens, interchanging positions, making it difficult for the opposing defence.

Liverpool’s Joe Allen, sporting a ‘Jesus’ beard, will partner Joe Ledley and play ahead of the back three in Wales’ 3-5-2 system. The duo will be tasked to close down space and not allow the centre-backs to get dragged out wide, thus opening space for Romelu Lukaku.

Wales will look to make the most of the space between the Belgian midfield and defence with the centre-backs trying to find Sam Vokes with long balls from defence.

Wales, a tactically superior side, which plays regimented football almost like a well-drilled club side, has the guile to put a check on this Belgian side, which is brimming with individual creativity but is yet to play as a team.

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