Hosts Portugal meet Holland in Lisbon tonight with a place in the final of Euro 2004 at stake.
Portugal have lost both their previous semi-finals, while Holland have reached this stage on four previous occasions but have only made it to the final once. Fear of failure may well be a factor, although both teams possess such an abundance of attacking talent, that one hopes that the desire to express will outweigh the fear of another failure.
For both teams, tonight’s encounter represents the end of a rocky road. Portugal were stunned by Greece in their opening game but coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has demonstrated powers of improvisation to get the best out his squad. And it has been a squad effort, with the likes of Rui Costa and Couto, previously deemed untouchable, being replaced by the younger, more mobile Deco and Carvalho.
Even talismanic skipper Luis Figo is no longer regarded as irreplaceable as Scolari has repeatedly shown that he is no great respecter of reputation.
Holland too have evolved as a team. Advocaat began the tournament with a masterplan which envisaged Ruud Van Nistelrooy supported by pace on the flanks in the shape of Zenden and Van der Meyde, with gifted young playmaker Rafael Van der Vaart expected to pull the strings from an advanced midfield role.
Tonight, only Van Nistelrooy is expected to escape the cull, with Van der Vaart now a peripheral figure, Van der Meyde facing the drop and Zenden comprehensively overshadowed by the hugely talented Arjen Robben.
Much will depend upon Robben tonight. Alone among the Dutch team, he has the ability to carry the game to Portugal. Moreover, his rapport with Van Nistelrooy has reaped dividends and if the Dutch are to prevail tonight then the duo could well be pivotal figures.
Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is encouraging his players to adopt a relaxed approach for tonight’s game.
“I promised the Portuguese people that we would go to the semi-finals in this tournament,” Scolari said.
“My players have helped me to fulfil this promise I made.
“Now there are four excellent teams left and only one of them can win it, so it will not be a failure if we don’t win the final.”
“It’s not always easy to keep calm for the whole game. But I’d like us to be cool at the start.
“We conceded early goals against Greece and England and we had to chase the game from the start against Spain, as we had to win.
“In this one it would be nice to build our game up a bit.
“If you look at the statistics, my team and the Dutch are very similar in terms of possession, shots on goals and fouls and in no way are we favourites.
“Our job on Wednesday will be to make life as difficult as possible for what is a very good team but they will be trying to do exactly the same.”
Scolari is in the fortunate position of having no injury concerns with Jorge Andrade and Nuno Gomes recovering from ankle knocks picked up against England.
Gomes may be replaced as Pauleta is available after suspension but Luis Figo should start, despite reports of a rift with the coach following Scoalri’s decision to substitute Figo in the England match.
Holland coach Dick Advocaat has enjoyed a rollercoaster of a tournament. Though pleased to be in the last four, Advocaat has been angered by the constant criticism of his methods.
“I’ve nothing to prove to anyone,” he said. It is not about me personally. It’s about the team and we’ve worked for more than two years to get here.
“Everyone talks about the big nations going out, but a small country like ours is nearly always in there.”
“Both teams are desperate to get to the final and it is a great moment to show the world, and European football, how they can play.
“Portugal has the home advantage, but we have very experienced players and I don’t think that’s a real problem to us.
“Portugal have a lot of talent, but we also have a lot of talented players and it will be a very interesting game.”
For Holland, Wilfred Bouma is doubtful, so Johnny Heitinga is expected to partner Jaap Stam in the Dutch defence. Frank de Boer damaged ankle ligaments against Denmark and is not expected to be play again in the competition.
One notable change could come on the right with Roy Makaay tipped replace the disappointing Andy van der Meyde.
Portugal: Ricardo, Valente, Miguel, Carvalho, Andrade, Costinha, Maniche, Deco, Figo, Ronaldo, Pauleta.
Holland: Van der Sar, Reiziger, Van Bronckhorst, Stam, Bouma, Cocu, Davids, Seedorf, Robben, Van der Meyde, Van Nistelrooy.