Francisco Conceição comes off Portugal bench to break Czech Republic hearts

Francisco Conceição comes off Portugal bench to break Czech Republic hearts

A night of mayhem and confusion, of futures and pasts dragging each other in different directions, and at its climax a goal of pure catharsis. Portugal, one of the tournament favourites, are away: a poacher’s goal by the 21-year-old Francisco Conceição sealing victory in the first minute of injury time and underlining the bench strength available to Roberto Martínez.

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And this was a redemption of sorts for Martínez too, a coach who knows that he will need to shed Portugal’s past if he is to shed his own. Perhaps unfairly maligned as the man who inherited Belgium’s golden generation and won nothing, Martínez has now been bequeathed a new galaxy of bright and brilliant things. Ultimately, though, Portugal’s embarrassment of riches proved more latter than former.

Conceição and Pedro Neto came on in the 90th minute and combined to score in the 91st. Along with the Paris pair of Nuno Mendes and Vitinha – both excellent – these players represent Portugal’s future. But moving on is easier said than done, and if this was a night that smoothed Portugal’s path to the knockout stages it also added a layer of complexity to the eternal riddle of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Five shots and no goals was the return for Portugal’s captain here. And really this is the crux, the whole point, the alpha and omega of continuing to select one of the world’s most divisive footballers. He scores, or he does not. And really the greatest of respect to the Saudi Pro League, he found the spirited and rigid Czechs a step up in quality here. He no longer physically dominates. The prodigious leap isn’t quite there any more. The finishing lacks its former venom. Even a second-half free-kick looped tamely into the hands of Jindrich Stanek.

The trouble with making everything the Ronaldo show is that his teammates – sensing their own peripherality – begin to defer and slacken a little. And these are players who really need to be allowed to shine in their own right, players such as Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes and Rafael Leão and Diogo Jota who need the freedom to grab a game by its lapels. At one point in the second half, Bernardo had a prime shooting opportunity but chose to square it to Ronaldo instead, who couldn’t get to the ball.

And ultimately Portugal needed a little fortune and a little character to gild their dominance of possession and shots: going behind to Lukas Provod’s goal and needing to fight their way back.

Martínez spoke afterwards of their “incredible personality” and they will be stronger for this experience, for this epic test in epic rain, the kind that puts a little extra juice on the ball and lends the whole occasion a pleasingly cinematic quality.

It was tough on the Czech Republic, so close to what would have been a heroic point until a stout defence calamitously gave way at the last. Robin Hranac’s own goal had given Portugal a route back into the game, and now as Neto crossed, his feet got stuck, the loose ball bouncing perfectly for Conceição to finish. Rugged and well organised, they had dealt superbly with Portugal’s pressure, their neat interchanges, the innumerable crosses for Ronaldo to attack. Ultimately, they were undone by two bounces of a ball.

But for seven precious minutes, they led. Portugal were slow to react to a loose ball by their own corner flag; David Doudera’s cross found Vladimir Coufal, who played it to Provod, whose curling shot from 22 yards was the latest in a series of brilliant long-range efforts at this tournament. Briefly Portugal tasted their own mortality, wondered silently whether this was going to be one of those tournaments. But crucially, they refused to panic.

And Martínez played a good hand well. Leão, fading from the game and booked for a pathetic dive in the first half, was withdrawn for Jota, which in turn allowed Mendes a freer run up the left. It was Mendes’s header which created the confusion from which Stanek parried the ball against Hranac for the equalising own goal. With minutes left, Jota had the ball in the net after Ronaldo had hit the post with a header.

Cue pandemonium, a goalmouth melee as Jota tried to grab the ball to do a pregnancy celebration, the goal eventually being ruled out for Ronaldo’s offside, the internet breaking.

But with time leaking away Hranac’s mistake let in Conceição, bearing out Martínez’s assertion that the “important thing is not the starting XI but the finishing XI”.

They were mesmerising at times, a little muddled at others, a kind of anti-England in their radically different take on how to accommodate a squad of luxuriant attacking talents.

You don’t fit them into a system, you make them the system, allow them to intuit and react and use their innate footballing intelligence to plot their way through the game. In a way, Martínez has staked his entire legacy on these players. Here, they just about came through for him.