|Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo makes a fist as he celebrates scoring against the Czech Republic during their Euro 2012 quarterfinal match in Warsaw on Thursday, June 21, 2012. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)
WARSAW - Question asked and question answered ... emphatically.
When Portugal made it to the second round of Euro 2012 with big wins against Denmark and the Netherlands, the focus was on one question: Were the Portuguese for real or, at the next sign of pressure, would they be done?
It was never about how well Portugal had responded to adversity, never about how much better it was playing as a team.
The Portuguese have been followed by a massive question mark. They well could have suffered a letdown Thursday against the Czech Republic in the first quarterfinal in Euro 2012. They well could have panicked when it looked as if the Czechs were going to choke the beauty out of the game by refusing to play.
Portugal bided its time, though, and was rewarded by another outrageous goal by Cristiano Ronaldo, resulting in a 1-0 win over the Czechs. It moved Portugal into the semifinals against either France or Spain.
There also were questions about Ronaldo. Had the thoroughbred really spit the bit out of his mouth?
This is a tournament that has most of the marquee teams lining up for the Euro title. Not since 2004 has Portugal made a Euro semifinal -- going on to lose in the final. It has been that long since the Portuguese really have been a factor in a major tournament.
They weren't considered a marquee team before this tournament. Now, this team could go on and win Euro 2012.
It may wind up losing in the semifinal but, whatever happens, manager Paulo Bento has found a formula that has changed the dynamics and attitude of this team.
The pressure-cooker of a quarterfinal against an opponent they should beat, always has been a stumbling block for the Portuguese.
Thursday night there would be no stumble. The Czechs rarely threatened and, after a mind-numbing first half, Portugal took over. The Czechs might as well have bought tickets to the game.
Despite creating numerous chances and Ronaldo hitting the woodwork twice, the much-needed goal still wouldn't come though. Fear began to gnaw at the Portuguese and their fans that extra time would be needed and then the dreaded kicks from the penalty spot. If it comes to that, it matters not how well a team has played. There is no certainty in the result.
But it was Ronaldo who decided the outcome. In the 79th minute Joao Moutinho made a great run that produced a little opening. He sent a cross into the penalty area. From seven yards, Ronaldo launched himself and met the ball with his head, slamming the ball off the ground and up into the top of the net. Czech keeper Peter Cech could do little about it.
It was Ronaldo's third goal in two games and suddenly the question mark became an exclamation mark.
The result was just. Portugal deserved to win.
In the end, one came away from the game with a feeling that the Portuguese have found something special at this tournament.
There is a new-found emphasis in getting Ronaldo involved in the game as soon as possible. Look for him whenever he's available and let him do his thing. The midfield play from Miquel Veloso and Moutinho and help from the back with Fabio Coentrao, has freed Ronaldo.
He is reciprocating by working hard and showing less frustration than he has in the past.
It's a happy and content Portuguese side right now. They have the benefit of being in a situation of having bettered the expectations many had of them.
When you give a team the chance to play with freely without pressure, you will see some wonderful things.
And now, Portugal is playing as if it is as free as a bird.