How they got here
Portugal’s qualification campaign began in the decidedly fractious afterglow of a 2010 World Cup that saw Carlos Queiroz dispense with the free-flowing attacking style of play that had characterised the Selecção for the last decade, choosing instead to soak up the pressure and counter-attack. A sound plan if you’re playing North Korea, but as a listless exit at the hands of Spain showed, it would only take you so far.
The campaign kicked off with a slapstick 4-4 draw at home to Cyprus, a match that saw the lowest attendance for a Portugal match in living memory. With the relationship between team and public damaged beyond repair, and his own reputation in tatters after a series of scandals, Queiroz departed in acrimonious fashion.
His replacement, Paulo Bento, was not universally welcomed, but has since won almost everybody over with his clear, simple messages, and decision to embrace the team’s strengths rather than reject them. As symbols of progress go, the 4-0 victory over Spain in November 2010 was about as emphatic as one could wish for, and although there was a slight wobble following the controversial departures of Ricardo Carvalho and José Bosingwa from the scene (Bento has since said that they can be at Euro 2012 – “in the stands”); a sumptuous 6-2 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina sealed qualification in style. Bento recently signed a contract extension that will keep him in the job until the 2014 World Cup – a reflection of the generally-held view that under his stewardship, Portugal are back on track.
Why they’ll win
Well, having the best player at the tournament in your corner isn’t a bad starting point. Tactically marginalised and visibly unhappy under Queiroz, Cristiano Ronaldo’s progress under Bento has arguably been the coach’s finest achievement since taking charge of the Selecção.
The two have enjoyed a close relationship since Ronaldo was a prodigiously gifted youngster at Sporting a decade ago. Bento’s career was winding down to a close, but he was a key member of the last Sporting squad to win a national title in 2001/02. The following season saw Ronaldo break into the first team, and although neither has spoken a great deal about this in public, it appears that an understanding was established between the two, one which has propelled Ronaldo to nine goals in fourteen games under Bento – no player has scored more.
It was noticeable that in the immediate aftermath of Ricardo Carvalho’s explosive departure from the training camp in Óbidos, and subsequent retirement from international football, it was his Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo who spoke to the press, declaring “we are with Bento.” When Ronaldo speaks, Portugal listens.
Apart from Ronaldo’s form, Bento has also brought some cohesion to the side. Returning to the 4-3-3 shape that the squad grew up under seems like a no-brainer, but the effect has been noticeable. The decision to recall João Moutinho, criminally ignored by Queiroz but made captain of Sporting at just 20 years of age by Bento in 2007, has also been crucial.
Why they won’t
Bento may have retained the support of the squad following the Carvalho and Bosingwa incidents, but there is little doubt that Portugal’s defence is a less fearsome prospect for their absence, Carvalho in particular. Although he has been a fringe player at Real Madrid this season, the 34 year-old arguably remains the most accomplished centre back available to Bento, particularly when one examines the competition.
In Carvalho’s absence, Pepe and Bruno Alves will be the first choice pairing at the back, with Porto’s Rolando first reserve. All three are deeply flawed – Pepe and Alves were surprisingly solid against Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the goal-laden second leg failed to mask an occasional tendency to let their concentration slip. The presence of the calm, unflappable Carvalho alongside either would also have acted as an insurance policy against the rushes of blood to the head; of which both Pepe and Alves are more than capable. With them on the field Portugal have too much yin and not enough yang.
Meanwhile Rolando’s late-season form has been so abject that he has lost his place in the Porto line-up, and his display against Denmark in the final qualifier was nothing short of catastrophic.
We've seen before
At the risk of sounding repetitive, it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that Portugal’s hopes of success in this tournament rest almost solely on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo. The likes of Fábio Coentrão, João Moutinho, Raul Meireles and Nani provide an excellent supporting cast, but such is the brilliance of the captain, and more to the point such is his centrality to the way Portugal play; that a slump in form could spell disaster.
Unlike Messi, Ronaldo rarely gives off the sense of fragility, at least physically. He barrels past opponents with savage force, and has shown no signs of fatigue after a demanding season. His presence also provides an additional advantage to Portugal, in that he is almost certain to be closely-marked, which should in theory open up further space for his teammate at club level, Fábio Coentrão, who is at his most effective when arriving from the back.
As previously mentioned, Ronaldo’s previously difficult relationship with the red shirt of Portugal has become somewhat smoother under Bento; yet the mental strain exerted on him, especially at international tournaments, should not be underestimated. His ability to rise to the occasion will likely determine how far the Selecção can progress. Oversimplification? Maybe. But he really is that good, you know.
Within moments of sending out a Tweet containing the latest Selecção squad news, I invariably receive a reply along the lines of: “some great players in there, but Portugal still haven’t produced a centre forward since Eusébio”. Whilst Fernando Gomes (European Golden Boot winner in 1983 and 1985) and Pauleta (47 goals in 88 appearances for Portugal, a strike rate that most any English centre forward of modern times would envy) may have something to say about that, the notion persists.
20 year-old Nélson Oliveira isn’t going to outscore Eusébio or Gomes any time soon, but the Benfica youngster is certainly the most celebrated attacking prospect Portugal has produced of late. Although his appearances at the Luz have been restricted to those games deemed unimportant enough for Óscar Cardozo to skip, Nélson has undoubtedly caught the eye this season, his first in the senior squad after loan spells at Rio Ave and Paços de Ferreira.
Fittingly enough, some might say, Nélson’s main strength is his ability to hurtle forward at breakneck speed, whilst retaining a cool head and above average vision for one so young. His opener against Marítimo is a neat summation of what all the fuss is about: poise, precision, and an instinctive awareness of his surroundings. Not a starter at this tournament, but undoubtedly an impact substitute.
How they will play
As you may have already gathered, the fulcrum of Paulo Bento’s Portugal is their captain. Indeed, such is the focus on the need to involve Cristiano Ronaldo that arguably the most talented creative force at Bento’s disposal has not had a look in since his arrival. Hugo Viana is a wonderfully gifted deep-lying playmaker for Braga, but with the current Selecção preoccupied with pressing opponents and working the ball into wide areas for Ronaldo, Nani, Coentrão and João Pereira, the game would likely pass him by were he to feature.
Prior to naming his squad, Bento declared that he wanted Portugal “to dominate every moment of the game.” Technically, they are capable of doing so: a midfield of Veloso, Moutinho and Meireles will rarely give away possession cheaply, whilst the aforementioned attacking quartet are relentless marauders to a man.
Of course, this could potentially leave Portugal vulnerable to the counter, which is why the importance of ball retention has become a mantra under Bento – criticised for his cautious approach at Sporting but now a coach who appears willing to risk considerably more. Portugal will undoubtedly score, but they will also concede. What a difference two years can make.
The stunning range of Portugal kit from Nike is available at Kitbag.
After two years as a co-editor at IBWM, Ben Shave has moved on to pastures new. You can still see him regularly at Portugoaldotnet and on these pages from time to time. Thanks Ben and good luck.