Euro 2024 day nine: Cristiano Ronaldo, pitch invaders, and Belgium back in business

Nine days into Euro 2024 and the tournament is reaching the point where things start to get really serious.

On Friday, Poland became the first team to be eliminated and, with the second set of group matches now complete, others will soon follow.

Belgium, the world’s third-ranked team and victims of a shock opening defeat to Slovakia, could have been at serious risk of elimination had they suffered another upset on Saturday, but they ran out 2-0 winners against Romania to kickstart their Group E campaign.

There were two games in Group F earlier in the day and, as is so often the case, Cristiano Ronaldo was the centre of attention as Portugal took on Turkey.

Ronaldo did not score, but he provided an assist and was approached by an unprecedented seven pitch invaders as his team won 3-0 to reach the round of 16. In the same group, a U.S.-based striker came within one kick of creating history for Georgia.

Our writers reflect on the key moments from another exciting day of European Championship action.

A pitch invader problem for UEFA

There is always a circus that follows Cristiano Ronaldo and, yes, he’s one of the best and most famous footballers of all time, so you’d expect that, but the cultish band of pitch invaders desperately hoping for a picture of their hero has reached a low point.

Ronaldo was heavily involved in Portugal’s victory over Turkey, a result that ensured they will finish top of Group F.

He missed his team’s first two goals for bizarre reasons. For Bernardo Silva’s opener, he was theatrically rolling around on the floor in the penalty area and for the second, a comical own goal from Turkey’s Samet Akaydin, he was busy berating team-mate Joao Cancelo for a misplaced pass.

But he then showed an unselfish side to his game when he set up Bruno Fernandes for Portugal’s third goal when he might well have shot and scored himself.

That was only part of his eventful evening, though.

Two people managed to get onto the pitch during the second half, both heading straight for the 39-year-old.

One was a child and Ronaldo gleefully welcomed him with open arms and posed for a picture.

Another, a fully-grown man, almost grappled the Portugal striker with his arm tightly around his neck, which Ronaldo then removed. The bloke had a cup thrown at him as he was hauled off.

Cristiano Ronaldo grew increasingly frustrated as the pitch invaders kept on coming (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

At full-time, the situation became serious when a number of people headed for Ronaldo from all angles as the stewards miserably failed to stop them from getting onto the pitch.

One appearing to be wearing a Turkey shirt was stopped well before he reached Ronaldo.

When Portugal’s captain spotted the next, while the players were slowly walking around the pitch clapping the fans, he put his arm out in frustration and stood still, hoping the stewards reached him first. They did, but not without one of the stewards sliding into Goncalo Ramos, who was taken out and then hobbled to his feet.

There were seven pitch invaders in total, all trying for a Ronaldo selfie.

“You can understand it was a difficult moment — if those intentions are wrong, the players are in danger,” said Portugal manager Roberto Martinez. “We should give a message to the fans: it’s not the right way. You’re not going to get anything out of it and what will happen is the (security) measures will get tighter.”

It is a situation UEFA really needs to get a grip on because the safety of Ronaldo and his team-mates is being put at risk. European football’s governing body said it is awaiting reports from the referee and other officials before deciding on any possible action.

Tim Spiers

Belgium are back in business… just about

With 10 minutes to go, Belgium’s game against Romania had the potential to be another one of those nights on the global stage for football’s nearly men.

Having somehow managed to lose their opening match to Slovakia on Monday — statistically the biggest upset in the tournament’s history in terms of the rankings — Belgium were thrashing Romania in Cologne… erm, 1-0.

Their goal, a beauty by Youri Tielemans, came in the 73rd second, which suggested this was going to be a night of catharsis for FIFA’s third-best team on the planet. But 78 minutes, 55 attacks, 18 chances and one disallowed goal later, they were still only leading by football’s most precarious of margins and Romania would just not quit.

The frustration appeared to be weighing most heavily on Romelu Lukaku, as it was Belgium’s record goalscorer who was caught offside by UEFA’s fancy semi-automatic offside technology – nobody else spotted it – just after the hour mark when he thought he had made things a little more comfortable.

Still officially a Chelsea player, the 31-year-old had two goals chalked off against Slovakia after video reviews, so this was the most unfortunate of hat-tricks.

But just when it looked like his travails might be at least part of the story, the evening’s best player, Kevin De Bruyne, showed him how it is done with a textbook striker’s finish. The goal was out of keeping with almost everything we had seen in the game because it came from Belgium goalkeeper Koen Casteels smashing the ball up the pitch.

Romania kept trying until the final whistle, as did Belgium, with Lukaku twice going close to adding to his 85 goals for Belgium. But it finished 2-0, which was a fair reflection of the balance of play but nothing like fair value for the chances both sides created.

Group E is now perfectly balanced, with all four sides going into Wednesday’s final games on three points. Belgium play Ukraine and Romania face Slovakia. Lukaku is nailed on to score a deflection, a tap-in and a penalty.

Matt Slater

Agony for Georgia and their U.S.-based forward

The last time Saba Lobjanidze scored in a competitive match, Lionel Messi was watching him from the other end of the pitch. He scored twice for Atlanta United against Inter Miami in May, just before he joined up with the Georgia squad for Euro 2024, a pair of beautiful curled shots from outside the area, one with his right foot, one with his left. Goals that the great man himself would have been pleased with.

Georgia gained an excellent point but now face an uphill task to qualify for the knockout stages (Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

But this is how football can make a fool of you. Those goals meant nothing when, with the clock ticking into the final seconds of injury time in Georgia’s game against the Czech Republic with the score at 1-1, the ball fell to Lobjanidze at the end of a rapid, three-on-one counter-attack.

He was around 12 yards from goal, unmarked. Only Czech Republic goalkeeper Jindrich Stanek stood between him and glory, with his nation’s first win at their first European Championship a kick away. There’s a good chance the goal would have put them through to the knockout rounds, too. It would arguably have given the lowest-ranked team in Germany their greatest football moment.

But the game doesn’t give you moments like that easily. Lobjanidze struck the shot over the bar. The final whistle went. The moment was gone. It wasn’t an open goal or the easiest chance he will ever have, but it’s one he’ll see over and over when he shuts his eyes.

Nick Miller

What’s next?

Sunday is when things start to get really serious, as the final round of group matches gets underway. It’s crunch time in Group A:

(Top photo: Daniela Porcelli/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

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Nine days into Euro 2024 and the tournament is reaching the point where things start to get really s…