THERE’S an old ‘Fantasy Football’ sketch in which Frank Skinner take a piece of chalk to a blackboard and writes ‘Off The Ga…” Frowning, he rubs it out and starts again.
“Off the Gu…” he scrawls this time and again he has to go to work with the eraser.
Finally, after a third failed attempt – “Off the Gi…” he gives up, turns to the camera and says, “See, it’s true what they say – you can never write off the Germans”.
Luis Scolari and his so-called ‘Golden Generation’ of Portuguese players are just the latest to feel the harsh truth of that footballing truism, after Germany emerged triumphant from another pulsating game in this goal-fest of a European Championship.
Goals from Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose and Michael Ballack did the damage and while Portugal twice pulled a goal back, their second – a header from substitute Helder Postiga in 86th minute – arrived too late to change the outcome even if it did ensure an edge of the seat four minutes of added time before the final whistle signalled that Germany were through to the semi-finals.
You couldn’t begrudge the Germans, even if Portugal’s failure is hard on wonderfully gifted players like Deco, Simao and – when the mood takes him, as it did only fleetingly last night – Ronaldo.
Portugal Luiz Felipe Scolari insisted the timing of the announcement mid-tournament of his move to Chelsea had not been a factor in Portugal’s exit.
“If I hadn’t announced it, we would have lost anyway,” he insisted.
“We lost because we didn’t do things with enough quality.
“It had nothing to do with this or that. Some people will imagine and will write that, but it had nothing to do with that.”
From start to finish last night Big Phil was his usual animated self in the Portuguese technical area, although his facial expressions grew more agonised the longer the game went on. German coach Joachim Low had more to cheer about by the end but had to make do throughout with a comfy seat behind glass, the consequence of his one-match ban — following the game against Austria in Vienna — for a touchline exchange of views with his counterpart, Josef Hickersberger, and the fourth official, which was, frankly, more purse than handbags.
Nevertheless Germany began much the brighter of the two teams. With the superb Deco always probing and looking to pick out the killer pass, Portugal had their moments too — not least when Joao Moutinho somehow contrived to knee a close-range chance over the bar — but, on the balance of play, it was no surprise when Germany took the lead in the 22rd minute.
What was surprising, at least for those who had billed this game as a clash of steel against style, was the sheer artistry of the build-up, a fluent series of one-twos, in which Ballack was chief orchestrator, before finally setting Podolski away up the left.
And from his low cross, Bastian Scheinsteiger cut across Paulo Ferreira and supplied the flashing finish at the near post.
If Portugal were shocked by that, they were stunned four minutes later when, from a routine free-kick, Miroslav Klose was given the freedom of the box to head home from close range.
2-0 to Germany and not yet a half an hour gone. Here now was a real test for Scolari and that somehow always brittle concept of Portuguese bottle.
But how well they responded, just six minutes before the break. Inevitably, Ronaldo was involved, taking a slide-rule Simao pass in his stride and, when the Man United winger was denied by Jens Lehmann, Nuno Gomes swivelled to fire home the rebound, despite the best efforts of Cristoph Metzelder to stop it on the line.
As expected, Portugal threw everything at Germany after the restart but a sign that it might not be their night came when centre-half Pepe, laying his considerable presence to the all-out attack, headed over from the edge of the six yard box with the goal gaping.
Portugal showed plenty of panache but an absence of penetration, and they were made to pay when they failed to deal with what should have been another routine free-kick. This time, Schweinsteiger was the provider, and when his looping ball arrived in the box but Ferreira and ‘keeper Ricardo were found wanting, as Ballack headed home from close range.
The question now was whether Germany, by no means impregnable at the back themselves, could close out the game. And they did, just about.
Apparently intent on mirroring their opponents’ defensive lapses, the German rearguard gave Postiga plenty of time and space to head home Portugal’s second but, with even with the game heading into four minutes of stoppage time, it was too little, too late as the German’s hung on to set up a semi-final clash with the winners of tonight’s clash between Croatia and Turkey.
Substitutions for Portugal: Raul Meireles for Joao Moutinho (31) Nani for Nuno Gomes (64) Helder Postiga for Petit (73)
Germany: Tim Borowski for Thomas Hitzlsperger (73) Clemens Fritz for Bastian Schweinsteiger (82) Marcell Jansen for Miroslav Klose (88)
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