Portugal coach reaps handsome reward for picking teenager Sanches
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - Portugal coach Fernando Santos turned to teenager Renato Sanches in a bid to bring some fluency to the midfield in their Euro 2016 quarter-final against Poland on Thursday and was handsomely rewarded for the decision.
Sanches, who only made his professional debut last October, was given his first international start and responded with a performance which belied his youth.
The 18-year-old ran the Portugal midfield, scored his team's goal and coolly stepped up to take their second spotkick in the shootout as they beat Poland 5-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw after extra time.
He even managed to upstage Cristiano Ronaldo, who produced another disappointing performance which featured a wasted free kick and two embarrassing miskicks when he had chances to grab a winner.
Portugal's midfield has been a headache for Santos throughout the tournament, failing to provide Nani and Ronaldo with the ammunition they need to run at defences, and Thursday's lineup was the nearest the coach has come to a solution.
Sanches, with his boundless energy, was the key, popping up in deep positions to start moves and in attack to create chances.
He capped his performance in the 33rd minute when he slipped the ball to Nani, collected a back-heeled return, sidestepped a marker and rifled home a shot from just outside the area.
There was no hint of nerves at the end, either, when he calmly scored in the shootout.
"I was just thinking about scoring, I was very cool, very collected," he said. "I went up to the ball and did what I always do, picked a side and then put it there."
Portugal's other heroes were Pepe, a rock at the centre of the defence, and goalkeeper Rui Patricio. As for Ronaldo, he is likely to face more criticism.
Once again, he wasted a free kick with a hopelessly ambitious attempt on goal from 40 metres before seeing three chances go begging.
After breaking clear down the left, he fired into the side-netting instead of squaring across goal, then missed the ball completely when he tried to hook in Joao Moutinho's clever dinked pass, and again failed to make contact with an inviting Eliseu ball across the face of the goal.
At least, he was prepared to stand up and be counted during the shootout.
In the semi-final shootout against Spain four years ago, Ronaldo was criticised for waiting until the last penalty, by which time his side had already lost 4-2.
This time, he strode forward to take the first one, fired the ball emphatically into the net and set his team on their way to a fourth semi-final appearance in their last five European Championship tournaments.
(Writing by Brian Homewood in Paris; Editing by Toby Davis)