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Cristiano Ronaldo steers Portugal into last 16 as Karim Benzema seals top spot for France

·3-min read
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema at half-time (AP)
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema at half-time (AP)

A frenetic evening that saw a shredding and then gluing together of the script ended with France as group winners with Portugal also progressing to the knockout rounds.

It was the kind of football that should be served on loop; on-pitch magic and muddling, emotional gymnastics and a healthy dose of contentious decisions.

The group of the tournament lived up to its billing, closing off this phase with fireworks in the form of a referee that took centre stage, another record for Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema scoring his first France goal in almost six years and an almighty scare for Germany. That’s simply a summary of the mayhem.

There had been little action in the Puskas Arena, before a sudden break of loud cheers when news filtered in from the other fixture that Adam Szalai bettered Manuel Neuer to put Hungary in a glorious position.

In Budapest, it was Portugal bringing the energy and enterprise. They have looked a different prospect at the Euros when Renato Sanches has been on the pitch and his first start, which should have come sooner, saw Fernando Santos’s men play some of their best stuff.

The midfielder, creative, combative and always looking to be involved, set the early pace. He had the first shot of the match, illustrated good skill to dodge Kylian Mbappe at one point and was core to all Portugal’s progressive play.

Where Bruno Fernandes had been anonymous, it was impossible not to notice and be impressed by Sanches.

Cristiano was his decisive, benchmark-setting self while Benzema provided the golden touch for France with Paul Pogba putting on a passing masterclass, but the man in the middle did his best to wrestle the spotlight.

Antonio Mateu Lahoz, never to be shaded, pointed to the penalty spot three times. On the half-hour, Joao Moutinho curled a free kick into the box that Hugo Lloris tried to punch clear.

The goalkeeper got a touch on the ball but most of Danilo’s face, and Cristiano stepped up to move past Miroslav Klose as the player with the most World Cup and European Championship goals.

There was contention over that decision, but Lloris was reckless and that kind of action from stoppers should be punished more often – it would be deemed violent play and a sending off for any outfielder.

And then Mbappe clashed into Nelson Semedo as he tried to reach a pass from Pogba, with the defender standing his ground.

It didn’t look or feel like a penalty, but Lahoz judged it to be one. Benzema sent Rui Patricio the wrong way to finally net again for the national team.

Having waited almost six years for that, he just needed to see out the half-time interval before getting another. Pogba sprayed one of his divine passes of the evening to release Benzema from deep. The marksman sent a low effort into the far post from eight yards.

He was flagged offside, but a VAR review cancelled that out. France, who had been outplayed for large stretches, were in front.

The group that keeps on giving, well, kept on giving. Jules Kounde unintentionally blocked a Cristiano cross from the byline with his arm and Lahoz granted another penalty.

Portugal’s star man struck the spot kick to level matters on the night and in terms of the all-time international scoring record, which he shares with Ali Daei.

The action was ceaseless. Pogba, feinted to shoot, brushed off Palinha and delivered a stinger from 25 yards. Patricio matched it with a superb one-handed save before leaping to his feet to thwart Antoine Griezmann’s follow-up.

Substitute Kingsley Coman had enlivened France, but Sanches was still driving Portugal forward. There didn’t need to be any further exertions though as they were both through.

If the rest of the tournament matches the drama of Group F, there is some showpiece still to tuck into.

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