Cristiano Ronaldo isn't as explosive as he used to be, and he's struggled to take over games at Euro 2016 as he once did. Still one of the greatest headers of the ball that's ever lived, Ronaldo rose above a Welsh sea on Wednesday, propelling Portugal past Wales, putting his country one win away from its first major title.
Portugal and Wales played what would kindly be called a dull first half.
Wales, a country of three million, the smallest ever to reach a European semifinal, playing without suspended star Aaron Ramsey, was hesitant to open up, and only managed three shots in the first 45 minutes. Portugal, a nation of 10 million, didn't offer much more, as the two teams combined for eight shots in the first half, only one of which was on target.
Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate Gareth Bale did what he could for a Wales team light on talent, offering a couple of hopeful strikes late that showed off his incredible technique from distance, but they did little to threaten Portugal's keeper. A pair of goals early in the second half forced Wales to chase the game, which proved too much.
The 2-0 victory puts Portugal into its second major tournament final. Portugal has never played in a World Cup final; its last major final was in 2004, when Portugal, and a 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, lost to Greece, with a far more talented Portuguese team than this one.
Ronaldo rises once more. Ronaldo has always been a lightning rod. Now 31, it's unlikely that the arguments about the pros and cons of the way Cristiano plays, or where his legacy lies on soccer's Mount Rushmore will be settled anytime soon (or even soon after he retires).
A man whose talent and work ethic are nearly without peer, one whose behavior, on and off the field, still leaves us all wondering how much better he could implement that talent while including his teammates, or how great Ronaldo would be if he could contain his ego, or at least harness it in a way that seemed more conducive to team objectives.
But of course, then he'd no longer be Ronaldo.
Ronaldo jeered Iceland earlier in the tournament after failing to beat the future quarterfinalists from Valhalla, later he threw a reporter's microphone in a lake, all while his team became the first in history to reach the semifinals without winning a game in regulation, with his less than stellar play the subject of scrutiny.
However, those who look closer see he's toned down his petulant outbursts toward teammates (at least on the national team), he's been more supportive of them, and of Portugal's rising 18-year-old star Renato Sanches, who was not as impressive against Wales as he has been in other games.
And prior to penalty kicks against Poland, with veteran star Joao Moutinho experiencing a crisis in confidence, and not wanting to kick, it was Ronaldo the one encouraging him, trying to alleviate the immense pressure spot kicks with a country on your back brings.
Moutinho went on to make his penalty kick, all the Portuguese takers did, after Ronaldo made his first -- before standing alone while his teammates stood arm-in-arm.
Ronaldo was having a fairly typical Euro 2016 game against Wales, which means he wasn't looking overly impressive, and neither was Portugal, a team that has managed to reach the final of the European Championship without owning a win over any of the favorites. (Croatia was probably the closest, and Portugal was fortunate to win that game, 1-0, after 120 minutes).
Style points become less and less important as you grow older, even to Ronaldo, and if there's one thing every great goalscorer knows it's that one moment can change everything.
This one did, and Cristiano put plenty of style on it.
Rising high above great athletes, who are relatively ordinary compared to Cristiano, this stunning header five minutes after halftime took the wind out of Welsh sails, and three minutes later a Ronaldo shot was redirected by Nani to make it 2-0, changing the terms of the engagement, with Wales unable to respond.
This was classic Ronaldo, a man who has spent his life training his body to do exactly this, and that same body rewarded him by offering him what is likely his last chance to win a major tournament.
"Now, we're one step away from being European champions. Dreaming is free, so let's keep dreaming,” Ronaldo said after.
Playing underdog to Germany or France is something Ronaldo will embrace, of course Portugal has a shot, all it takes is a blink of an eye to change a game, and few have ever changed them quicker than Cristiano.
Fernando Santos’ first game as Portugal’s coach was a 2-1 loss to France in a friendly in 2014 at the Stade de France, where the Euro 2016 final will be held. After the win over Wales he revealed a challenge he made to his players after that game.
"I called my players together in the bowels of the Stade de France and told them that our goal was to be right back here two years later for the final of Euro 2016," Santos said. "And now we have done it. Now we have a final to play. And I don't just want to play it. I want to win it."
Most career European Championship goals: Michel Platini 9 goals (5 games), Cristiano Ronaldo 9 goals (20 games), Alan Shearer 7 goals (9 games).
Top scorers at Euro 2016: Antoine Griezmann 4, Cristiano Ronaldo 3, Nani 3, Gareth Bale 3, Olivier Giroud 3, Dimitri Payet 3.
Scheduling quirk. One small but perhaps important difference between the Euros and other major tournaments is that the Euros play semifinals on Wednesday and Thursday, which means one finalist always plays on just two days rest.
The last time both Euro finalists had at least three days rest was in 1996, when both semifinals were played on the same day, with start times three and half hours apart.
Tournaments have all sorts of constraints, but the World Cup and the Copa America ensure both their finalists have at least three days rest before they try to lay their claim to history -- which seems to makes sense for players, fans and anyone interested in seeing a final with both teams as close to their best as possible.
This may be the type of slight edge Portugal will need entering its chance at history as a heavy underdog, hoping that Germany and France play a grueling game that will take its toll into Sunday.
Six of the outfield players Santos played in the win over Wales are 29 or older, and all will surely will be grateful for that extra day’s rest: Ronaldo 31, Nani 29, Bruno Alves 34, Jose Fonte 32, Joao Moutinho 29 and Ricardo Quaresma 32.
Welsh pride. Wales will leave France with heads held high, having outperformed all expectations at its first major tournament since 1958, and reached the first semifinal in its history. Added perks include bragging rights.
Wales suffered a late defeat to England in the group stages, but when the new FIFA rankings are released -- Wales is guaranteed to be ranked above its neighbors, with Wales 11th, and England 13th.
And there certainly isn’t any shame about the pedigree of the players whose goals have sent Wales home from its only major tournament trips, 58 years apart.
Two players whose winning goals eliminated #WAL from major tournaments:— Artur Petrosyan (@arturpetrosyan) July 6, 2016