Portugal have gone top of their Nations League group after an impressive 4-0 win against the Czech Republic at Fortuna Arena.
The visitors arrived in Prague hoping to climb to the summit with a win, with Spain, one point and one place ahead of them, taking on Switzerland in the evening’s other Group A2 match. Meanwhile, the hosts, three points behind Portugal in third, knew that anything other than victory – combined with dropped points for Spain – would snuff out their sputtering hopes of reaching next summer’s finals.
The two sides looked evenly matched early on, with the Czechs going close via Vaclav Jemelka and Patrik Schick before Rafael Leao and Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to score for Portugal. Ronaldo, who sustained a nasty cut to the nose after a coming-together with Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik, went on to miss two big chances, the first when he scuffed a shot from five yards after an inch-perfect pass from Bruno Fernandes and the second when, having been picked out by Fernandes at the far post, he ballooned wide on the volley.
The hosts came within a whisker of opening the scoring when, with a little over half an hour gone, a lovely passing move ended with Vladimir Coufal looping a cross into the box. Both Schick and Antonin Barak went for it, seemingly putting each other off, with the latter glancing a downwards header wide of the upright.
Moments later, Portugal took the lead. Diogo Dalot marauded forwards and picked out Fernandes to his right. His Manchester United teammate whipped a cross into the box which evaded everyone, but Leao gathered it up and pulled the ball back for Dalot on the charge. He finished the move he had started, smashing past Vaclik.
There was high drama on the stroke of half-time when, having just doubled their lead after Mario Rui had teed up Fernandes for a simple finish, Portugal conceded a penalty. Perhaps looking to shield his bruised nose, Ronaldo raised his hand and brushed the ball in the area.
Schick stepped up but, tasked with giving his side a foothold in the game, he squandered the opportunity, clipping the crossbar with a rising effort which sailed into the stands. Dalot got his second soon after the restart, taking a touch on the edge of the area and lashing in, before Diogo Jota, on as a substitute, wrapped things up with a close-range finish at a corner.
With Spain duly losing 2-1 to Switzerland in Zaragoza, Portugal are now two points clear at the top. The old rivals face off in Braga on Tuesday to decide who will have the chance to win the tournament.
Climactic clash to come next week. With Spain slipping to a surprise defeat on home turf, Group A2 just got a whole lot more interesting.
Luis Enrique’s side now need an away win to secure their place in the Nations League finals. Whatever happens on Tuesday evening, it will go down in Iberian football folklore.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Diogo Dalot (Portugal). As well as helping Portugal to keep a clean sheet, Dalot got his first goals at international level. With only five senior goals to his name in total before this, it has to go down as an exceptional performance.
For the opener, he showed fantastic stamina to initiate the attack, bomb on and get on the end of Leao’s final ball. Vaclik could have done better the second time round but, still, if this game teaches Dalot anything, it’s that he should back himself to shoot more often.
Czech Republic: Vaclik 4, Coufal 6, Zima 4, Brabec 6, Jemelka 5, Zeleny 5, Soucek 5, Kral 4, Barak 5, Schick 5, Hlozek 4
Subs: Kudela 4, Sevcik 5, Cerny 4, Vlkanova 5, Kuchta 4,
Portugal: Costa 7, Dalot 9, Dias 8, Pereira 7, Rui 7, Neves 6, Carvalho 7, Silva 7, Fernandes 8, Leao 8, Ronaldo 7
Subs: Jota 8, Horta 6, Palhinha 6, Nunes 6, Mario N/A
33’ GOAL! Dalot tears forwards and moves the ball on to Fernandes. He whips it across the face of goal, but nobody gets on the end of it. Leao recycles and, rushing into the box, Dalot applies the finish. Portugal lead.
45’ GOAL! That’s way, way too easy for Portugal. Rui gets down the left and flashes a cross into the box. Having ghosted past Alex Kral, Fernandes fires home from close range.
45+3’ PENALTY SHOUT! The Czechs get the ball into the box and it clearly strikes Ronaldo’s hand as he looks to protect his face. Portugal could be in trouble here.
45+4’ PENALTY! Referee Srdjan Jovanovic points to the spot. Schick will take it.
45+5’ PENALTY MISSED! Schick has had a nightmare. His effort rises steeply, clipping the crossbar and spinning away.
52’ GOAL! Dalot has his second of the night, swashbuckling forwards, taking a touch on the edge of the area and lashing a shot into the far corner past the despairing dive of Vaclik. It’s all over now, surely.
83’ GOAL! It’s been an impressive performance from the visitors, all told. Jota adds some extra sheen to the scoreline at a corner, latching onto Ronaldo’s knockdown to bundle home from close range.