Ronaldo rescues Portugal, Iceland, Ireland into last 16


Lyon (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Paul Pogba are through, now the European Championship finals turn to revenge, a fairytale David v Goliath tale and a heavyweight rematch.

Ronaldo hit two crucial goals — becoming the first player to score in seven straight major tournaments: three World Cups and four European Championships — as Portugal three times came back from a goal down to draw 3-3 with brave Hungary and reach the last 16.

“It was an insane match,” said the three-time World Player of the Year.

Now Portugal have to take on Luka Modric’s Croatia in Lens on Saturday with the pressure even higher with a place in the quarter-finals at stake.

“Croatia are a tough team with very good players. It’s not every team that beats Spain. They have, so we respect them,” said Ronaldo.

“We know our worth and we will look them in the eyes when we face them.”

There will be showdowns aplenty in the eight matches over an action-packed three days, starting with Croatia-Portugal, Wales-Northern Ireland and Switzerland-Poland on Saturday.

After a landmark 1-0 triumph over Italy, for Republic of Ireland there could be vengeance in the air when they play hosts France with Pogba looking to prove his worth in Lyon on Sunday.

Irish fans will never forget Thierry Henry’s handball in extra time of a World Cup qualifying playoff in Paris in 2009 that led to William Gallas’s equaliser securing France’s place at the 2010 finals.

Eight of the team that started that night are still in Martin O’Neill’s squad. But goalkeeper Shay Given said “it’s not about looking back … what happened is gone now.”

Robbie Keane also believes it is time to “move on”.

“Yeah I was there. I will not think about that for one second,” the 35-year-old striker declared.

– England fans –

Substitute Ingvi Traustason’s last-gasp goal earned Euro debutants Iceland a famous 2-1 win over Austria and a last 16 clash with Wayne Rooney’s England in Nice on Monday.

Iceland are appearing at their first major tournament and are the lowest ranked of the 16 teams left at 34 in the FIFA standings.

Magnus Ver Magnusson, the Iceland powerhouse who has four times won the world’s strongest man title, said it would be “David vs Goliath” battle.

But Magnusson and the Iceland team believe the whole nation of 330,000 is behind them in the quest. More than 25,000 Iceland fans have been at some of their games in France.

“I’ve always supported England at big international tournaments when we haven’t been playing,” said Iceland co-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson.

“It’s a dream come true, but we go into the game to get a result. We believe in our ability.”

– Final repeat –

Italy also believe they will be the underdogs when they take on fellow European powerhouse Spain in a repeat of the 2012 Euro final in Paris on Monday.

Both countries came into the contest licking their wounds suffering disastrous first round exits at the World Cup. Both teams also lost their final group matches in France after two strong victories.

“We mustn’t get above our station,” said Italian coach Antonio Conte.

“A last-16 match against Spain should excite us and we need to play like we did against Belgium, against a side who are supposedly superior.”

Spain beat Italy 4-0 in the 2012 Euro final and on penalties in the 2008 quarter-finals. Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque has so far only said that the draw against Italy was “not ideal”.

British Isles sides have had spectacular success at Euro 2016 so far with all four through to the second round. 

Bale has been the standout British player on show with his three goals so far making Wales strong favourites against the Northern Irish.

Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes said the whole team will have to watch the Real Madrid superstar, who is joint top scorer at the tournament.

“You can never really deal with the threat of a player of that calibre by marking him one-on-one. You need to work as a team,” said Hughes who is looking for a new club after one year playing in Australia.

Poland take on Switzerland in Saint-Etienne on Saturday hoping that Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski will finally start scoring.

In other key clashes world champions Germany will also be hoping their faltering forwards start firing when they take on Slovakia — who beat them in a recent friendly — in Lille on Sunday. Surprise package Hungary also play Belgium in Toulouse on Sunday.

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