Bento adds stickability to style
The post-match buzzword was the same as the pre-match one: holidays. "We're in first place, which was the aim, and we're going off on our holidays feeling relaxed," said Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo after Saturday's win over Norway, in a brief summary after the game which paraphrased similarly weary comments in Thursday's press conference.
"First is what counts," sighed sports daily O Jogo on Sunday morning as it wearily rubbed its eyes. That Portugal have recovered from an abject start to Euro 2012 to now lead the Group H table with three games to go is a welcome relief. Yet it was a tight, fractious encounter at the Estadio da Luz, between two teams who engaged with intensity but were ultimately running on empty at the end of a long club season.
Egil Olsen's side arrived as group leaders but were widely expected by the Portuguese media - bizarrely - to be mere cannon fodder for their own revitalised national side. However, Ronaldo's contention that Norway "parked the bus" is to do the visitors a disservice.
The stats don't always tell the whole story and that was certainly the case here. Anyone absorbing the possession stats (69% for Portugal) and the corner count (13-1 in the hosts' favour) without seeing the game would conjure a mental image of an Iberian deluge, but that was limited to a mid-afternoon thunderstorm in Lisbon that made the pitch slick.
Norway were worthy competitors, and their incisive counter-attacking provided the nearest the first-half came to a goal. Olsen's men moved the ball with purpose when breaking out and had Hannover's in-form (and significantly more mobile) Mohammed Abdellaoue started the game in place of John Carew, they may have made capital of those moments. There is little argument with the quality of the personnel in Portugal's defence, but there is an alarming vulnerability to the side when an attack breaks down and they lose the ball.
There is a paradox at the heart of this problem. The redeployment of Pepe to centre-half (having been used as a defensive midfielder by Carlos Queiroz throughout the final year or so of his reign) has given life to a fluid, intuitive midfield under Bento. The trio of Raul Meireles, Carlos Martins and the irrepressible Joao Moutinho makes Portugal a far more attractive proposition to the neutral, with the Liverpool man as the nominal sitter but swapping roles with his two colleagues with ease as the situation demands.
On the other hand, the lack of a dedicated destroyer can leave Portugal prone to breakaways, with Fabio Coentrao also frequently central in attacking moves. Pepe's return to the defence also compromises one of the team's pillars of stability; the Bruno Alves/Ricardo Carvalho partnership, with the former having retaken his place in the XI only when the latter suffered an injury in training.
Ronaldo himself has, however, been one of the chief beneficiaries of Queiroz's exit. In the former Manchester United assistant's 26-month second spell in charge of the national side, the team talisman scored twice - a penalty in a friendly win over Finland and the sixth in the 7-0 World Cup finals drubbing of North Korea. In the latter game, Ronaldo also provided his only assist of the Queiroz era.
He has come to life again under Bento. Queiroz was set to ditch Ronaldo as captain over murmurs about his attitude during the World Cup (Alves had become the captain-elect), but the coach's suspension over the Covilha affair waylaid this plan. He has retained the armband and flourished under Bento, hitting crucial goals in the autumn qualifiers against Denmark and Iceland.
The skipper was present in spirit at the Luz, but not entirely in body. Most of the usual boxes were ticked - he had an early free-kick beaten away by Rune Almenning Jarstein and by the end, had had more efforts on goal (nine) than the entire Norwegian side put together (five).
Never more was this wan imposter of Ronaldo's normal self as apparent as in the 82nd minute, when he had the chance to seal the game. The ball broke to him on the edge of the area after Brede Hangeland's dubious challenge on Nani, but the man who usually needs no second bidding to get a shot off hesitated, and was crowded out.
Some even whistled their nation's icon towards the end. "Whistling? I didn't hear anything," he deadpanned after the game. "You must have better hearing than me. It's normal that people whistle. The Portuguese are always like that."
Instead, the hero was an unlikely one. Helder Postiga, hardly the Luz crowd's favourite player, netted his third goal in two games at the home of Benfica, having scored a brace in November's 4-0 demolition of world champions Spain. The Sporting striker is hardly in the Lukas Podolski class yet, but does enjoy far better form at international than club level. The goal against Norway was his 15th in 40 internationals, giving him a strike rate of one every 2.6 games - the same as Wayne Rooney manages for England.
While the Norway match may have been one to endure rather than enjoy, its usefulness in the context of the qualification campaign could be matched in the medium--term by what it represents for the next stage in the development of Bento's Portugal. If a word other than 'holidays' was apt for this performance, it was 'patience'. There was no panic when half-time was reached without a crucial lead registered, and Portugal began the second period with the necessary belief.
Bento, a man who perennially exudes calm, extended the team's patience towards its uneasy public. "It's natural that everyone is living through the country's situation with some anxiety, and that people find in football a way of unloading their frustrations."
The new coach has not led a revolution, but altered a few fundamental elements of the set-up. "I can't put into words what's changed in this team, but something's changed," Alves said after. These indefinables can make the difference between success and failure at the top end of the international game.