How long ago the afternoon in Lyon now seems when, against a bright and inventive Hungary side, Portugal were less than half an hour from being knocked out of Euro 2016.
They needed Cristiano Ronaldo to save them with their third equaliser of the game, thundering in a header to add to an exquisite backheel, and while that scraped them through to the last 16 it would have taken a generous stretch of the imagination to envisage red and green bunting being set up for a final showdown in Paris.
Contrast with the tone now. “France is a bit more the favourite than us, but I think Portugal will win,” Ronaldo said ahead of Sunday’s game and perhaps Portugal have reason to believe their name is on the trophy.
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They have been the below-radar candidate, their prospects only opening up definitively when Wales beat Belgium with such surprising comfort in the quarter-finals, and now they find themselves a step away from glory with one of the world’s most potent weapons at their disposal.

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring a goal during the Euro 2016 group F football match between Hungary and Portugal at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais stadium in Decines-Charpieu, near Lyon, on June 22, 2016

Image credit: AFP

That, of course, is Ronaldo and if his influence has been sporadic so far the situations in which he has wielded it have been those of the highest pressure. Without his contributions against the Hungarians, the tournament's narrative would have changed completely; had he not risen high above Wales’s defence to thunder in the opener in their semi-final, the tie could have remained in the balance for far longer. His powers do not appear to be what they were, particularly when required to sprint over a long distance, but his sense of theatre is ineffable and a decisive contribution on Sunday would fill a distinct void in his career.
“It would mean a lot, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of, to win with the national team,” he said. “I have won everything at club level and individual level; this would be a great achievement to win something for the Portuguese team.
“I believe this is possible, as do my colleagues, and the whole country also believes. We must have positive thinking because I believe that Sunday will be the first time Portugal will win a major trophy.”

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Positive thinking from a position of apparent disadvantage has borne fruit this summer, as both Wales and Iceland will testify. Portugal do not match up to France easily in a simple man-to-man comparison but, under what increasingly looks like extremely canny management from Fernando Santos, have become a highly effective unit.
Ronaldo and Nani have been converted to dynamic central threats, ensuring that their brightest attackers are as close to goal as possible. Renato Sanches has, in the last two rounds, given their midfield an ability to shift through the gears and their spine, with Pepe to partner Jose Fonte at the back, has been increasingly strong.
If they do complete an unlikely success, history will view the round of 16 win over Croatia as the catalyst. It was a drab, dour game, settled towards the end of extra time by a scrappy Ricardo Quaresma goal, but Portugal had set out to achieve exactly that. T
hey had, contrary to perception, been fairly offensive during the group stage but the intention against a Croatian team that had just beaten Spain was to clog the midfield and stick closely to Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, with William Carvalho and Adrien Silva doing tireless work off the ball. Fonte, introduced for Ricardo Carvalho, was imperious and Santos had struck on the right formula for exactly the right time.

Croatia's Luka Modric reacts as Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo looks on after the game at Euro 2016

Image credit: Reuters

“I think the match against Croatia was of strategic importance,” Santos said, looking back on Portugal’s route to the final.
“It does not matter to us whether it was spectacular or not. Sometimes you may play in an unspectacular way and you win. Other times you play very spectacularly and you lose.”
They did the required job and, although their success against Poland in the next round needed penalties, they had become the better side as the game wore on. There is an argument that, blessed with a place in the weaker half of the draw, they are yet to face genuinely top-level opposition -- and it did seem that they were fortunate to face a previously buoyant Wales side that was shorn of its best performer, Aaron Ramsey -- but ever since the group stage ended Santos’ men have done everything that was asked of them. Previously maligned players like Nani and Quaresma have stepped up when it counts; extra resources have always been summoned up when a situation has demanded.

Portugal's players celebrate after forward Nani scored a goal during the Euro 2016 semi-final football match between Portugal and Wales at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais stadium in Décines-Charpieu, near Lyon, on July 6, 2016

Image credit: AFP

There is just one more job to do. While this has been far more of a team effort than anyone expected, Ronaldo’s figure looms large over Stade de France now and was certainly in the mind of France coach Didier Deschamps when he gave his pre-match press conference. “If there is an anti-Ronaldo plan, no one has yet found the recipe,” Deschamps said. “It would be great to neutralise him, of course, but we need to be wary and limit his influence. That will be important to do.”
France would not be the first to manage it at Euro 2016. Portugal, though, feel that they have hit their groove at the right time.
“On Sunday it will be the first time that Portugal are going to win an important trophy,” Ronaldo reiterated, and the feeling lingers that the stars might just have aligned.
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