Portugal will play Poland at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille in the first of the four quarter-final ties at Euro 2016 in France, with a semi-final against either Wales or Belgium up for grabs for the winner.
Both sides failed to win their respective Euro groups in the first round, with Poland finishing second behind fellow quarter-finalists Germany in Group C and Portugal qualifying as one of the best third-placed teams, with both Hungary and Iceland above them in Group F.
The Poles progressed to the last eight after beating Switzerland 5-4 on penalties at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Étienne, with the game finishing 1-1 after extra-time. Grzegorz Krychowiak scored the winning penalty with new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka missing the crucial spot-kick for the Swiss.
Portugal almost needed penalties themselves against Croatia in their last 16 clash at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens, with journeyman Ricardo Quaresma heading in after 117 minutes after captain Cristiano Ronaldo saw his shot saved by keeper Danijel Subašić.
Both Portugal and Poland will be looking to put the game to bed early on Thursday and avoid further extra-time/penalty shootout drama. There will be a number of key battles across the pitch, with success in individual duels crucial to winning such a high-pressure international knockout tie.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Michał Pazdan
Portugal captain and three-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo is his nation’s talisman – a goal machine with only one thing on his mind, win at all costs. The 31-year-old initially struggled to impose himself on the tournament in France, missing a penalty against Austria and failing to score in either of his first two Euro 2016 group games.
The Real Madrid superstar made amends in Portugal’s final Group F match, however, with two clinical strikes to secure a 3-3 draw for his side against Hungary and passage into the first knockout round, becoming the first ever player to score at four separate European Championships.
He comes up against Polish hero Michal Pazdan on Thursday, with the defender in great form. The 28-year-old put in a man-of-the-match performance against world champions Germany in the 0-0 draw in the group stage, with many Polish fans ‘threatening’ to shave their heads in homage to the centre-back if Poland reach the final.
Pazdan will have to be at his very best to stop Ronaldo, with arguably the fate of his nation in France once again resting on his shoulders.
Robert Lewandowski vs Pepe
Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski has failed to score so far at Euro 2016, with the 27-year-old’s profligacy in front of goal cause for real concern for the Poles.
The attacker scored 42 times for the German champions last season but remains in poor form. He will come up against Portuguese hard-man Pepe on Thursday, with the no-nonsense 33-year-old both an outstanding defender and a quintessential wind-up merchant.
Portugal conceded four times in the group stage, the joint-third worst record of the 24 teams competing, but kept dark horses Croatia at bay in the last 16. Much will depend on the service Lewandowski gets on Thursday, but if the supply line is there, perhaps facing an imposing opponent such as Pepe will galvanise the striker into the form required to steer his side through to the semi-finals for the first time in their history.
Andre Gomes vs Grzegorz Krychowiak
Portuguese midfielder Andre Gomes has certainly put himself in the shop window in France. The 22-year-old has been a dynamic presence in the centre for Fernando Santos’ side at the Euros, with the likes of Barcelona now linked with the Valencia man. He will once again be key to his nation’s chances against Poland – if he is fit to start.
Gomes came off after 50 minutes in the last 16 win over Croatia with a muscle injury and only returned to full training on Wednesday morning, having sat out two days of practice.
If he does start he will find Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak waiting for him at the Stade Vélodrome on Thursday. The 26-year-old has been strongly linked with a move to French champions PSG this summer after a number of key performances for his side in France and with club side Sevilla, with whom he won the 2016 Europa League.
Portugal vs Poland is sure to be a tight encounter considering the manner in which both sides progressed from the last 16. All three of the above battles will be fascinating to watch, with the winner of each sure to have a prominent say on the outcome of the match.