Category Archives: Portugal

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

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.


Benfica & The (Non-) Curse of Béla Guttmann

Benfica fan

Heartbreak again for Benfica on Wednesday night as two fluffed penalties by Rodrigo and Óscar Cardozo cost them the penalty shoot-out in the Europa League final, their second consecutive final defeat in the competition. As Águias coach Jorge Jesús might have thundered that his side was the better one and deserved to win, but it’s hard to begrudge Sevilla their victory. Even though they were on the back-foot for long stretches of the 120 minutes, they carved out a fair number of chances on the counter-attack themselves, with Croatian playmaker Ivan Rakitić majestic in the middle of the park, and Colombian Carlos Bacca could well have won the match for them outright in extra time  when he shot a bit too hastily with the goal to Oblak’s right gaping in front of him. The composure with which the Andalusians approached the penalty shoot-out also gave the lie to the old saw that penalties are a lottery –– nine times out of ten, it is the mentally stronger team that wins, and, after two hours, that was Sevilla on Wednesday. Unai Emery’s men, despite being in financial turmoil, have now capped off the club’s most successful period since the 1950s, having won the UEFA Cup/Europa League three times and the Copa del Rey twice since 2006.

But what of Benfica? The defeat in Turin was undoubtedly disappointing but the Lisbon giants have already sewn up a 33rd Portuguese title, the League Cup and face Rio Ave (whom they already beat 2-0 to win the League Cup) in the Taça de Portugal final on Sunday. When I was at the Estadio da Luz for the Europa League semi-final first leg against Juventus, friends and other Benfica fans were all saying that, once the league was in the bag, anything else was a bonus extra. Being top dog at home is what really counts but it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that Benfica have lost eight European finals since becoming the first team to wrestle the Champions Cup off Real Madrid in 1961 and 1962.

The story goes that the Hungarian manager who led them to those two triumphs, Béla Guttmann, put a curse on the club when his demands for a bonus and a new contract were not met. More specifically, he said that no Portuguese team would again be European champions twice and that Benfica would never win a European competition again for 100 years. Porto’s triumphs in 1987 and 2004 have already proved the first half of the curse wrong but people still cleave to the truth of Guttmann’s malediction, given Benfica’s serial lack of success in eight finals. Eusébio once visited Guttmann’s grave in Vienna before the 1990 final against Milan and prayed to him to lift the curse.

Now, before embarking on a debunking of the ‘curse’, I suppose I should admit the ridiculousness of even having to do so, but belief in curses endures worldwide across numerous sports and these curses are usually a desperate attempt at rationalising something that is, for most clubs, the norm –– years without winning a trophy. Curses are usually indicative of entitlement among sports fans –– the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox, Clare hurlers and Benfica have all been afflicted by curses, but not, surprisingly, Rochdale Football Club, without a single trophy of note in its 107-year history. A dry run is not so uncommon, and Benfica’s should be put down simply to bad luck, and, in a wider sense, to a fairly shambolic organisation over the past two decades.

Guttmann was clearly not so fazed by his own curse, as he took the reins of the club again, for the 1965-66 season, which finished trophy-less but in between two European Cup final appearances. Benfica’s five Champions Cup final defeats would probably have more to do with the calibre of opposition they faced than any curse –– four times they fell to one of the greatest teams of the day, Nereo Rocco’s Milan in 1963, Helenio Herrera’s Inter in 1965, Matt Busby’s Manchester United in 1968 and Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1990. Only a shoot-out defeat to PSV Eindhoven in 1988 came against a more modest adversary. Had Benfica the fortune to face an internally squabbling Bayern Munich or a rather ordinary Monaco, as Porto did when they won their European titles, things might have been very different. The three UEFA Cup/Europa League defeats were all different –– a narrow aggregate defeat to Anderlecht in 1984, a last-minute loss to Chelsea last year after dominating the Londoners for much of the game and now this year’s defeat to Sevilla. The ‘curse’ may, naturally, have its psychological toll but all three finals were well within Benfica’s grasp.

If anything, Benfica should be grateful they have reached so many finals at all since their glory days of the 1960s and 1970s. The club’s domestic dominance came to be seriously challenged by Porto after the fall of the Estado Novo regime in 1974. Benfica, while by no means a club tied to the Salazar regime (Lisbon rivals Sporting were more popular with government bigwigs and the bourgeoisie) did enjoy a privileged status on account of its international success. That privilege was lifted after the Carnation Revolution. The club soldiered on well enough until the 1990s when a rot set in that has only really been tackled since the arrival of Jesús from Braga five years ago. He has won two of the club’s three titles since 1994 (Giovanni Trapattoni won the other in 2005). Benfica have played second and often third fiddle to Porto, and most humiliatingly, Sporting, in that time, with the nadir being a sixth-place finish in 2001. Sport Lisboa e Benfica was a byword for institutional incompetence and on-field calamity for the best part of two decades. Next to that, the curse of Béla Guttmann looks pretty harmless stuff. Jesús is also, amazingly, only the third Portuguese manager to win the title for Benfica –– Portuguese coaches boast only five championship wins for the club, compared to ten by Hungarians, of which there have been seven at the helm, including Guttmann.

Jesús, a former journeyman player, came to the club after impressing with Lisbon’s third club, Belenenses and Braga, and has restored it to both a level of functional excellence and credibility on the field. He is pretty much untouchable now, even if his Benfica side has shown a recurrent tendency to lack the killer punch to add to their frenetic but highly technical and entertaining game –– the 2012 Champions League quarter-final second leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and the Europa League final against the same opposition a year later are cases in point where Os Encarnados dominated without seriously troubling the opposition. Still, he has shown tactical nous –– the Europa League semi-final second leg against Juventus was a masterpiece of expedient defending –– and the way Benfica bounced back after losing the League, the Cup and the Europa League all to last-minute goals in the space of a week last year shows that he has instilled in his players a steel that has for long been missing at the Estadio da Luz.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Group B: Raconteurs Reconvene

Almost exactly one hundred and ninety-six years ago, a good forty-seven non-seasons before the codification of the Laws of the Game, Percy and Mary Shelley were staying with their friend Lord Byron and physician John Polidori in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year, 1816 was, to all extents and purposes, summerless. With the dismal weather making it impossible to hike or sail, the companions took to sitting around listlessly indoors, occasionally easing their frustration by reading aloud to one another. One night, inspired by excerpts from Tales of the Dead, they decided to hold a competition to see who could write the best horror story over the next few weeks. Reconvening eventually on an appropriately dark and stormy night, Mary dazzled the men with the skeleton of Frankenstein, and Byron told a tale about a vampire which – thanks to an act of gratuitous plagiarism by Polidori – evolved throughout the nineteenth century to become Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And Shelley? Well, according to the version I’ve heard, Shelley started telling a story about a woman who had eyes where her nipples should have been, then ran screaming from the room having frightened himself too much.

You’ve probably guessed from the title that this preamble is a slightly convoluted analogy for Group B. In a tournament arguably overstuffed with the competing football narratives of various nations, the Group of Death perhaps stands out in its surfeit of modern-day sporting mythologies. Germany, as SM pointed out at the weekend, come to Ukraine seeking to convince the world that its new story – of how the ugly winners of old deserve to become the world’s second team – has currency beyond the borders of the Bundesrepublik. Amongst other motivations, Portugal are desperate to demonstrate both that there is life beyond their (slightly staggered) Golden Generation and that Cristiano Ronaldo won’t become yet another of those great players who fail to claim a major international trophy. The Dutch want to correct the image of themselves the World Cup final of 2010 imprinted on the world’s footballing imagination and, as ever, need to add another successful instalment to their long-running saga with Germany. Denmark, as in every competition they’ve reached the finals of since 1992, unsettle opponents with their none-more improbale underdog tale.

After the weekend’s opening games, there’s a real chance that tonight could see eliminations in Group B. With this in mind, I feel I can stretch my metaphor a bit further. Germany are the Mary Shelley of the party. Youngest and with the best long-term prospects, their story is all about an internal antagonism between technocracy and expressiveness, and seeks some form of synthesis to its dialectic of science and nature. This resolution seemed some way off against Portugal, as a much-fancied team laboured to produce the aggressive counter-attack expected of them. In that match, there was something Byronic in the Portuguese performance – a moody railing against history overcast somehow with imtimations of the inevitability of doom. Harold Bloom would have been proud of them but it feels right now as if their story is destined to be heard only by its first audience.

Who, then, are Portugal’s Polidori? Denmark seem the obvious candidate. When the groups were drawn, it seemed as if they’d be the ones sitting in the corner, watching and taking notes as their more talented friends battled to create the perfect Märchen. However, there’s a good chance that the Danes could take those notes and produce something with far more longevity than the Portuguese fragment or the Dutch…well. The Dutch are Shelley, aren’t they? Not for the first time, they bring some spectacular talent to the tournament, but seem to have spooked themselves somewhere along the way. Given the number of chances they made on Saturday against Denmark, their failure to score is scarcely believable, and there’s now enormous psychological pressure on them to perform against their old rivals in Kharkiv tonight. Sadly for Van Persie and co, there appears to be a good chance that they’ll be the ones running out screaming.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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