Preview 26 – Portugal

No longer burdened with a golden generation’s promise, Portugal have over the past decade morphed into one of the world’s more consistent tournament teams, even if they have yet to replicate the feat of reaching a final, which they did on home soil at Euro 2004. At the European Championships two years ago, Paulo Bento’s stewardship steered them through the group of death after an opening defeat to bogey team Germany. The Selecção also meet the Germans in their first match in Brazil, in Salvador on June 16th in what is again the toughest group in the tournament, with games against Ghana and the United States to follow.

Bento’s approach is a lot more expansive than that employed by Carlos Quieroz in South Africa four years ago, where a caginess against Ivory Coast and Brazil produced the requisite draws and Portugal were fortunate to benefit from North Korea’s only major collapse of the tournament, winning 7-0 in Cape Town. Queiroz’s game plan met its limits in the second round against Spain however, when Portugal put most their efforts into keeping Vicente del Bosque’s men at bay. Cristiano Ronaldo, in particular, was left fuming at the end of a match in which he enjoyed an unusual dearth of service. A clear contrast was the way Bento’s Portugal’s gamely went at the same opposition in Donetsk two years later in the Euro 2012 semi-final. João Moutinho and Raul Meireles more than matched Xavi and Xabi Alonso in midfield and Portugal had long stretches of domination. Ultimately they were undone by their severe lack of firepower up front, of which more later, with most of the threatening strikes coming from Ronaldo from distance. After a 0-0 draw, Spain, not too surprisingly, held their nerve to win on penalties.

While Portugal are definitely a more assertive proposition under Bento, and neither are they short on quality, there is still a tendency to funnel much of the play through Ronaldo, and, to a lesser extent, his former Manchester United team-mate Nani, on the opposite flank. The back four of João Pereira, Fabio Coentrão, Pepe and Bruno Alves is as strong a defensive line-up as any in Brazil and the midfield, largely unchanged from the Euros (and the last World Cup, other than Nani, who was injured) has been fluid and capable under Bento. It is understandable the reliance on Ronaldo though, even if Portugal are far from being a one-man team. Up front, they have scant supplies –– Hugo Almeida, so alarmingly toothless against Spain two years ago; Hélder Postiga, still around after what seems like forever and Braga’s Éder, who has just six caps to his name. A measure of the horses for courses required is evident from the six goals Postiga –– a man who can’t be faulted for trying –– scored in the qualifying group in which Portugal finished behind Fabio Capello’s Russia. When the play-off against Sweden came around, it was left to Ronaldo to deliver all four goals, including a hat-trick in Stockholm, his second of the qualifying campaign. This lack of attacking quality makes Bento’s decision not to end Ricardo Quaresma’s two-year international exile (though he did select Quaresma in the provisional thirty-man squad) all the more mystifying. Back with Porto after six months without a club, Quaresma has been on sparkling form for a team that was otherwise quite hapless last season. Clearly Bento decided that Quaresma’s notoriously prickly character was not worth the trouble but he has a level of inspiration and skill that none of the selected centre-forwards can match.

Portugal’s form in qualifying was stuttering, as it has been so often in recent years but they are also a side very much at ease when playing against top-class opposition. There is undoubtedly a bit of a fall-off in quality in the rest of the squad but youngster William Carvalho, who had a wonderful season with Sporting, and who made his debut in the second leg against Sweden, could be one of the tournament’s surprise sensations if he manages to get some playing time. Portugal are also solidly experienced –– fifteen players played in Poland and Ukraine and eleven in South Africa and they have been ever-present at international tournaments since 2000. If they can pull through the Germany game without losing, they will be well set up for the following games against Ghana and the US. Getting out of the group would leave them well-placed to face off against one of Russia, Belgium or South Korea in the round of 16. After that there would most likely be Argentina. The draw may ultimately mean that Portugal go home sooner than they might otherwise do  but they are not going to show an excess of respect to stronger opposition –– Quieroz’s main fault in South Africa –– and could well cause an upset should they need it against one of the big guns.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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