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Sports Features of Friday, 13 December 2013

Source: Lexis Koufie-Amartey/footy-ghana.com

Portugal – finished article or one-man team?


It’s no exaggeration to say that this Portugal team is on a gradual and continuous loss in value. For a generation of players that were heralded as golden, they have flattered to deceive. But even in their slump, they have one of the world's best footballers in Cristiano Ronaldo who has plenty of talents around him including Manchester United's Nani, Real Madrid duo of Pepe and Coentrao, Monaco's Joao Moutinho, Hugo Almeida and Helder Postiga.

Portugal's World Cup History

That Brazil is the fourth straight World Cup Portugal has reached comes as little surprise. That is expected of a team that has a large pool of talent to pick from. But even though this has been done successfully with effort, skill and courage, the results have been mixed. In 2002, Portugal failed to get out of its group. They lost to South Korea and the USA, described as minnows. But it will make amends four years later as they won their three group games, a round of 16 match against the Netherlands, and a penalty shootout with England before failing to France in the semifinals and Germany in the third-place match. When the World Cup was hosted in South Africa, they lost to eventual winners, Spain in the Round of 16. But in Brazil, Ronaldo and his cohorts will be motivated to better their country's best-ever finish, which came in 1966 when the team finished third after losing to England in the semi-finals.

How they qualified

In what was supposed to be an easy European qualification group, Portugal fell short and in the end came second to a Fabio Capello-led Russia.

Here's the breakdown:

Luxembourg 1-2 Portugal

Portugal 3-0 Azerbaijan

Russia 1-0 Portugal

Portugal 1-1 Northern Ireland

Israel 3-3 Portugal

Azerbaijan 0-2 Portugal

Portugal 1-0 Russia

Northern Ireland 2-4 Portugal

Portugal 1-1 Israel

Portugal 3-0 Luxembourg

Then in the play-offs

Portugal 1-0 Sweden

Sweden 2-3 Portugal

A quick glace at these result would have everyone coming up with the obvious conclusion that this was a rather poor showing from Portugal. A team that has a luxury of picking truly world-class players should be putting up dominant performances. But qualifiers aren't used as determinants and variables in who would do well at the World Cup these days. A lot will happen between now and June 2014.

Paulo Bento

For a manager who often loses his cool [UEFA once suspended him for five months for bad behavior after a semifinal defeat to Spain at the Euros in 2002] and who many doubted was the ideal man to lead the team after Carlos Queiroz, Bento has chalked marginal success with this Portugal team. He has taken advantage of his versatile players, something that was not appreciated under the previous coach. It is crucial that a coach, when he manages good football players, does not interfere with their talent.

But, he has, albeit slowly, improved them. He has made them to do things they probably do not master, but his players still make the sacrifice. They do it for the team. Always known as a fiery competitor, the former defensive midfielder impressed many with his tough-tackling abilities and work rate. Having won 35 caps for Portugal, he understands what needs to be done to achieve success at the top-level. His managerial success gives him the needed respect from the players to achieve that. As manager of Sporting Lisbon, he won the Portuguese Cup in 2007 and 2008, the Portuguese Supercup in both years as well and was runner-up twice in the Portuguese League Cup. With Bento at the helm, Portugal benefits from a coach who is stern, stubborn, often controversial, but undoubtedly one of the acknowledged masters of international soccer.

Portugal Tactics

As typical of all Bento teams, he has gotten this Portugal team playing neat, attacking style which is in no way comparable to the ultra defensive tactics employed by Quieroz, which often left a frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo alone upfront. Paulo Bento's preferred formation, which suits the players, is 4-3-3 with a twist in midfield. Rui Patricio has evolved over the years after a couple of bloopers in his younger career and has thus been Bento's trusted man in between the sticks. As has become the norm, Pepe and Bruno Alves will line-up in central defence.

Having both played at Porto, the level of understanding between the two shouldn’t be a problem. Despite Fabio Coentrao's lack of games and injuries at Real Madrid, he is an assured starter at left-back, though more than his defensive skills, it is his attacking talent that makes him indispensable.

Miguel Veloso, who hasn't matched his hype potential, with Raul Meireles will create the defensive screen for the Portugal defense. Joao Moutinho will be given the Deco-esque task of being the creative midfielder. Together with Veloso and Meireles, they are expected to press the opposition in midfield, while the front trio of Ronaldo, Nani and Helder Postiga apply pressure further up the pitch.

Defence has always been Bento's Achilles heel. Unlike their past teams, their defence is not as strong as it is usually. While Pepe and Bruno Alves are two accomplished defenders, the duo along with Pereira are known to have rash moments, which could prove to be costly at this stage. But their two star wingers, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo, who provide the spark upfront for this side, can make up for these defensive blunders. Especially with neither of Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida really good enough to be classified as world class, the lack of a good center-forward makes it even more important for Ronaldo and Nani to create goal-scoring opportunities and scoring them. How Bento manages to utilize the services of the duo will decide how far they go in Brazil.

Portugal Players To Watch

Cristiano Ronaldo: That's quite obvious. There's no one better than him on the planet now. For both club and country, he has developed into a rare hybrid of a winger and a forward whose game relies on explosive movement rather than pure technical ability. There is the debate that he has struggled to show up on the biggest stage, having scored just a goal at the World Cup in Germany in 2006 [which was a penalty against Iran] and only once in the 7-0 drubbing of North Korea in the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa. But the four goals he scored against an Ibrahimovic-led Sweden is beginning to convince his critics and naysayers that he has learnt to step up when it matters most.

He has gone from being a dribbler to something close to a pure finisher, relying more on explosive off-the-ball movement than technique and flair. He may retain his old qualities, but the essence of his game has changed significantly. The Real Madrid player now has a practical touch and a certain pragmatic, down-to-earth way of approaching things, which combined with his enthusiasm makes him very effective for the Portuguese national team.

Under Bento, he has adapted well to the pressure and criticisms and guided the team to achieve the ultimate objective of qualifying for the World Cup. He has added maturity to his unquestionable individual brilliance, making him less flashy but, typically, more effective.

Ronaldo has 10 goals in nine matches for Portugal in 2013 - the first time that he has managed double figures for his country in a calendar year. His previous best was seven in nine games, in 2011, which is credit to an improvement in his overall game – particularly with the added dimension of his aerial play, which makes him as threatening inside the box as outside it.

Nani: On top form, the Man Utd winger can be a nightmare for defenders. A bundle of pace and trickery, his ability to create and score spectacular goals makes him an important attacking outlet. But he is defensively weak and too often wasteful in possession. For the Portugal team, he has managed just 14 in 72 matches. But it doesn't in any way diminish his qualities. His pace and skill makes him devastatingly explosive. And with Ronaldo hogging all the limelight, he normally sneaks in to produce moments of magic.

Joao Moutinho: The Monaco midfielder is consistent and versatile enough to play as a winger, centrally or even as a holding midfielder. His quick feet and ability to find a teammate accurately with either foot ensures that he is a difficult man to dispossess. The nimble playmaker has a considerably small frame, meaning he is often out muscled in certain situations. But what he lacks, Meireles makes up for it. The robust, committed, uncompromising, tough-tackling midfielder is a spark in Bento's team. He is commanding in the air, despite his relative lack of height, and anticipates and deals with danger well. He attacks the ball with relish and has an eye for goal.

Pepe and Bruno Alves: Both are aggressive and imposing, with Pepe as the no-nonsense central defender who leads the back-line superbly and Alves being good in the air and a weapon from set-pieces at the opposite end.

What Are Portugal's chances?

“It’s a tight group with a favourite – Germany – because of their history and potential,” Bento said after the draw. “Both USA and Ghana have good teams, well organized and good players in some of the best European teams. But our ambition does not depend on the group. We want to be in the round of 16 and that’s what we will fight for.” he added.

Bento, who is nicknamed "Papa-Taças" ("Cup Eater"), added, "It is what it is. It's a tough group, with four good teams that have reasons to believe they all can make it to the next round. Most people probably think Germany is the best team. It's obvious they could win the whole thing. Our first aim is to get to the knockout stage, and then we'll take it from there. I can't forget that we lost our first match of the 2002 World Cup against the USA. It was a shock to us, that 3-2."

Michael Bradley, who plays for Roma and the American national team, said, "Portugal had a little bit of trouble coming out of qualifying in Europe but that doesn’t say much because there are so many good teams in Europe. For me, like I said, Ronaldo is the best player in the world right now. He has shown, even when you look at the two games with Sweden, that he has the ability to, in a way unlike any other player in the world, put his team on his shoulders and will them and carry them. We have, for sure, a lot of respect for their team and we know it will be really difficult."

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