Why Portugal will not fear Spain

Posted by Tom Kundert

The muted enthusiasm evident among most Portugal supporters at the start of this tournament has now been replaced by excitement levels not seen since the height of the Luiz Felipe Scolari era at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup.

© PA Photos

Ahead of the all Iberian semi-final there is a palpable feeling that this Selecção team could be on the cusp of a historic first trophy.

“Unstoppable!” was the headline emblazoned on the front page of leading sports daily A Bola the day after a high-quality and composed display from Portugal had seen off a dogged Czech Republic side.

But is this most un-Portuguese like wave of optimism justified? After all, to make progress the Selecção must now overcome the reigning World and European Champions, Spain.

The noises coming out of the Portugal camp exude a quiet confidence, and several factors suggest it is not misplaced. Here are five reasons why the Spanish will hold no fear for the Portuguese:

1) Recent history

Yes, it was only a friendly, but the manner of Portugal’s remarkable dismantling of a practically full-strength Spain side in November 2010 will surely give Paulo Bento’s men a psychological boost – and plant a few seeds of doubt in the opposition. The Selecção were irresistible as they plundered a 4-0 win in Lisbon, pressing incessantly, zipping the ball from foot to foot crisply and accurately, and finishing their chances with aplomb. The same formation and most of the same players will be on duty in Donetsk on Wednesday night.

Even in the last competitive match between the two nations played a few months earlier in South Africa, only an offside David Villa goal proved the difference, giving Spain a narrow, albeit deserved victory. Both these encounters will ensure Portugal do not go into the match with an inferiority complex.

2) Squad packed with winners

A host of Portugal’s players who will be on duty on Wednesday are used to that winning feeling. Captain Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão played key roles as Real Madrid got the better of a Barcelona team some champion as the greatest club side ever. João Moutinho was at the hub of FC Porto’s midfield as the Dragons clocked up yet another domestic title in Portugal.

Raul Meireles may have been suspended for the Champions League final, but nobody should underestimate the role he played in pushing Chelsea to European glory, especially in that semi-final second leg in the Camp Nou. Nani had a rare lean year at Manchester United, but the winger has won a raft of silverware since swapping Sporting for Old Trafford.

These six players are used to winning, and the contribution each one has made thus far at Euro 2012 suggests they are determined to transpose that club success onto the international arena.

3) Portugal more than Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo has been hogging all the headlines in the wake of two mesmeric performances against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, but one thing that has set this Portugal side apart from many of its predecessors is the unmistakable unity and spirit of sacrifice among the whole squad.

It is a team in the true sense of the word, and when one part of it is not firing on all cylinders, others have compensated. The captain’s off-day and the response from the rest of the side against Denmark is the perfect example of that. Ronaldo will always be Portugal’s most potent weapon. But an able supporting cast has stepped up big time.

4) Pressure

The Portuguese players can go into the game completely uninhibited by the unreasonably demanding expectations often placed upon them by the media and fans alike back home. A Bola editor-in-chief, Vítor Serpa, wrote after the Czech victory: “Now, anything is possible, but the memory of this as an enjoyable tournament is already assured, where the national team went back to the best expression of Portuguese football.”

Enjoying their football is precisely what Portugal’s players seem to be doing at the moment. Spain, on the other hand, will surely consider a semi-final exit a failure. So one side goes into the game with no pressure but full of ambition, with a huge prize awaiting them should they triumph. The other goes into it with more to lose than to gain.

5) Spain on the wane?

Spain are undoubtedly a magnificent team. Player for player, it is difficult to argue against Vicente del Bosque’s men still being the best squad in the world. However, the two times they have come up against quality opposition this tournament, they have struggled to dominate to such an extent as in the recent past. Spain could quite conceivably have lost to both Italy and Croatia.

Is that because they are yet to hit full gear or is it a case of the players not having the same hunger after four years of astonishing success? The answer could come on Wednesday night.

Keep bang up to date with Portugal’s progress in Ukraine and Poland by following me on twitter @portugoaldotnet.

Relentless Lisbon academy gives Portugal a Sporting chance

Posted by Tom Kundert

Ask most football fans outside of Portugal to name two Portuguese football clubs and they are likely to reply “Benfica and FC Porto.” Unless they are from a younger age bracket. In that case they would probably say “FC Porto and Benfica.”

© AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

This is a painful but unavoidable truth for fans of Sporting Clube de Portugal, commonly referred to as Sporting Lisbon. A powerhouse of Portuguese football from the inception of the league through to the 1960s, the stark reality is that the Lions have won the domestic title just twice in the last 30 years.

Nevertheless, in one area of the game Sporting are peerless, not only in Portugal, but arguably throughout the whole of Europe. The club’s Alcochete academy on the other side of the River Tagus to Lisbon has churned out a quite astonishing number of dazzling talents and has become the lifeblood of the Selecção.

Luís Figo, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo are just three of a non-stop production line of magnificent wingers. Two others spawned from the same school - Ricardo Quaresma and Silvestre Varela - are part of the current Portugal squad in Poland and Ukraine.

But there’s more. Of the Portugal side that has started in each of the first three group matches at Euro 2012, five are Alcochete products.

While Ronaldo and Nani have been earning all the plaudits, especially after their wondrous displays against the Netherlands, midfielders João Moutinho and Miguel Veloso are just as deserving of praise. Neither put a foot wrong in an exhilarating team performance that obliterated the Dutch. Veloso, sitting in front of the defence, did an expert job (for the third match running) cutting off the supply line to the opposition forwards.

Moutinho was as industrious as ever and his superb passing came to the fore in this match as he combined beautifully with both Ronaldo and Nani throughout the ninety minutes. I invite you to look again at Moutinho’s transport of the ball in setting up Ronaldo’s first chance that ended up hitting the post, and the slide-rule pass that released Nani on his way to setting up Ronaldo’s winner. Beauty in simplicity.

Today, on the eve of Portugal’s quarter-final against the Czech Republic, the selfless FC Porto midfielder was asked to give his opinion on Cristiano Ronaldo. Part of his answer provided a perfect description of Moutinho himself: “He’s simply a great player who puts all his talent at the service of the team.”

The intense Sporting connection to this particular Portugal side does not stop there. Coach Paulo Bento was given his break in club management in 2005 when Sporting decided to hand him first-team duties after he had led the youth team to the championship. He immediately promoted Nani, Veloso, Moutinho and goalkeeper Rui Patrício to the senior side. They are now all regulars for the national team.

A couple of years prior to that Bento had played alongside the raw but extravagantly talented Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma in the green and white of Sporting in the twilight of his career. “Paulo Bento has exactly the same personality and character now as when he was a player,” Ronaldo confided shortly after Bento had become national team coach in September 2010.

This helps explain why Bento commands the utmost respect from his players, a respect that could have been extinguished in weaker personalities after high-profile fall-outs with veterans José Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho during the Euro 2012 qualification campaign.

That and his straight talking. “We are not entering a state of euphoria. We’re happy and proud of what we have done so far and we had our moment to celebrate. Afterwards, we rested and focused on preparing for what lies ahead. Which is nothing more than a chance to reach the semi-finals,” said Bento today.

Should Portugal make further progress, fans of Sporting Clube de Portugal will once again feel that, while they may struggle for silverware, it is their club that has done more than any other to bring success to the national team.

Keep bang up to date with Portugal’s progress in Ukraine and Poland by following me on twitter @portugoaldotnet.

Resurgent Veloso Portugal's key man against Holland

Posted by Tom Kundert

As expected, Group B has proven as tight as a goalkeeper’s buttocks when facing up to a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick. Portugal go into their final group game against the Netherlands knowing they can win and still get knocked out, or lose and still go through. All four teams are in with a shout of making the quarter-finals, but any of the four could be on their way home come Sunday night.

That said, it would need an unlikely combination of scorelines to prevent Germany from progressing, and of the three other teams, Portugal, currently sitting second in the table, would appear to be the best placed. Not least because they are facing one of their favourite opponents. Ten times Portugal and Holland have met, and only once have the Oranje prevailed. The Selecção have won six times, with three draws.

Moreover, the two times the two nations have met in tournament play, Portugal have prevailed - in the Euro 2004 semi-final and the infamous “Battle of Nuremburg” at the 2006 World Cup. On both occasions Maniche scored the winning goal, and the ex international happily quipped to the Portuguese press this week that “In Holland people can’t bring themselves to look at me!”

This time round it is again a midfielder who could hold the key for Portugal. Miguel Veloso’s career promised so much when he burst onto the scene as a teenage sensation for Sporting. Fast forward half a dozen years to 2011/12 and Veloso was not even a regular for a Genoa side struggling to avoid relegation in Serie A. His place in Paulo Bento’s starting eleven was far from consensual going into the tournament.

That is no longer the case. Two superb performances saw Veloso keep first Mesut Özil, then Christian Eriksen firmly in check. As well as shackling two of Europe’s most lauded creative midfielders, Veloso’s razor sharp first-time passing was often the starting point setting Portugal’s attacks in motion. And that is not to mention his pinpoint set-piece delivery from that wonderful left foot. The 26-year-old could well be playing himself into a lucrative move to a more prestigious club.

However, it doesn’t get any easier for Veloso. Holland’s big names up top have disappointed so far, but the fact they have zero points from two matches cannot be attributed in any way to Wesley Sneijder. The Inter Milan schemer has been the focal point of everything the Netherlands have done right from an attacking perspective at Euro 2012, and with a two-goal winning margin required, the Dutch will be striving to give him as much of the ball as possible.

It sets up a fascinating individual battle in the middle of the park, and one which could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the match.

A hunch

I would also suggest looking to Veloso should Portugal earn a free kick within striking range of the goal on the right-hand side of the pitch. The whole world will be expecting Cristiano Ronaldo to have a blast, but Veloso could well surprise the goalkeeper with a good old fashioned up-and-down over-the-wall curler into the corner. It was a ploy executed to perfection against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the play-offs.

Veloso has scored numerous goals direct from free kicks. What Portugal would give for one more on Sunday…

Keep bang up to date with Portugal’s progress in Ukraine and Poland by following me on twitter @portugoaldotnet.

Familiar failing threatens Portugal

Posted by Tom Kundert

Curiously, despite defeat in their opening game, Portugal go into their second match at Euro 2012 with a higher level of confidence than at the start of the competition.

Gloomy predictions regarding the Selecção’s chances of making it out of the group of death abounded in the lead-up to the Germany game, but the way Portugal more than matched many people’s tournament favourites on Saturday night has raised hopes that this team could yet have a significant role to play at the party.

There were plenty of positives to be taken from the unlucky defeat against Joachim Low’s team: the defence looked solid, Miguel Veloso dissipated all doubts as to whether he merits a place in the starting XI, Fabio Coentrao was back to his brilliant best, and the team showed tremendous togetherness as a sterling late rally just failed to translate into a deserved draw.

However, there was also further evidence of a problem that Portugal appear unable to shed - the inability to take their chances.

It was this familiar failing that ultimately undid them against Germany. And we need only look back at recent encounters between the Selecção and Wednesday’s opponents, Denmark, to see how much this acute problem has haunted the Portuguese in recent times.

The two nations were in the same qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup. In the first game in Lisbon the beauty of Portugal’s football was matched by farcical levels of profligacy. Leading 1-0, four different Selecção players contrived to miss one-on-ones against the goalkeeper, and a late collapse saw the Danes escape with a 3-2 victory despite being outplayed. In the return match in Copenhagen, it was a similar story. Portugal had THIRTY efforts at goal. Denmark had three. The result was 1-1.

Fate threw together the two countries again in Euro 2012 qualifying, with Portugal winning 3-1 at the Estádio do Dragão in Porto in Paulo Bento’s first game in charge, and losing 2-1 in Copenhagen.

So while one win in four matches is not the best of records, it’s fair to say that, based on chances created, only one of those games did Portugal not deserve to win. Unfortunately for Portugal, putting the ball in the back of the net is one skill required to make a successful football team. A rather important one at that.

As the famous ex-Poland striker Zbigniew Boniek told Portuguese newspaper Diário de Notícias on Monday: “If football was a game that did not involve goals, Portugal would have won the World Cup three times.”

The promising 20-minute cameo against Germany from the young Benfica striker Nelson Oliveira has had the Portuguese press calling for his inclusion in the starting XI in place of the hard-working but often ineffective Helder Postiga. Oliveira has undoubted talent but is still raw, and it will be surprising if the conservative Bento does not send out the exact same XI against Denmark as against the Germans.

Portugal have scored just one goal in their last four matches. “We just need to score one goal, then others will come,” Miguel Veloso said on Monday. Whether it be Helder Postiga, Nelson Oliveira or Hugo Almeida at No. 9, more than ever, Portugal desperately need Veloso’s words to be proven right.

Keep bang up to date with Portugal’s progress in Ukraine and Poland by following me on Twitter: @portugoaldotnet.

Five reasons why Portugal will win the Euro

Posted by Tom Kundert

Portugal’s group at Euro 2012 comprises three of the top five ranked countries in the World. The other team, Denmark, are ranked 10th and have got the better of the Selecção in the last two qualifying campaigns. Portugal have won none of their last three matches, scoring just once. The final friendly before the tournament resulted in a 3-1 defeat in Lisbon against Turkey on Saturday, in a match where Paulo Bento’s team were booed off the pitch by their own fans for the second time in eight days.

And here I am saying Portugal can win the Euro. Too much Portuguese sun? Perhaps. Perhaps not. For each and every one of the aforementioned negative portents, there are at least as many reasons why Portugal can go into the tournament in a positive frame of mind. Here are five justifications as to why the Portuguese can surprise the world.

1) No pressure

Reading and listening to football experts, pundits and disinterested fans over the past fortnight or so and it is abundantly clear that 95% of them believe Germany and Holland will be the two teams making progress to the quarter-finals from Group B. Portugal enjoyed a golden decade in the noughties, qualifying for every major tournament, reaching two semi-finals and one final, but conventional wisdom says this Portugal team is substantially inferior to its recent predecessors. It’s a view I dispute. More of that in nos. 2 and 3. But one thing is absolutely certain. Expectations are at their lowest ebb for ten years. If Portugal fail to qualify it will not be a surprise and recriminations will be minimal. So NO PRESSURE at all.

2) Devastating flank attack, underrated midfield duo

Portugal possess arguably the two most potent wingers in the world. And in Fábio Coentrão and João Pereira, they also possess two attacking full-backs with the ability to provide devastating support down the channels in their own right. With Ronaldo-Coentrão on the left, and Nani-Pereira on the right, the threat coming from Portugal’s flanks is potentially destructive and multi-faceted. Any defence will be presented with a huge task to nullify it.

In João Moutinho and Raul Meireles Portugal have two of Europe’s most underrated midfielders, who have formed a superbly efficient partnership in the middle of the pitch since Paulo Bento became Portugal coach in September 2010. Both are tremendously hard-working, highly intelligent and play with metronomic consistency. They may be unspectacular, but their fast passing, fast thinking and dynamic style is perfectly suited to Bento’s philosophy, based on possession and transporting the ball quickly.

3) Getting the best out of Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo endured a frustrating and unhappy time for Portugal under the ultra-defensive tactics of Carlos Queiroz, scoring just one goal in that two-year period. In contrast, Queiroz’s successor, Paulo Bento, who was a team-mate of Ronaldo’s at Sporting in the twilight of his career, has got the very best out of the Real Madrid man. Ronaldo has reproduced his breathtaking club form on a frequent basis for Portugal over the last 20 months, scoring 9 goals in 14 games. Even more pleasing, the captain has been linking up well with team-mates, providing assists and is much more willing to share the attacking burden rather than trying to do it all alone.

4) All present and correct

Although the coach did little to help himself, Carlos Queiroz can justifiably point to terrible luck with injuries that severely depleted Portugal at the 2010 World Cup. Nani got injured just before the tournament, Pepe had rushed back from months out due to knee ligament problems and was clearly unfit and José Bosingwa also missed out on South Africa because of knee problems. Portugal has been blessed with 5 or 6 world-class performers in most of their teams over the last decade. 2010 was no exception. Losing half of them to injury was too big a hurdle to overcome.

Thankfully, this time round it appears all of Portugal’s cream of the crop - Ronaldo, Nani, Moutinho, Coentrão, Pepe - are fighting fit and champing at the bit to further enhance their reputations.

5) History on Portugal’s side

- Portugal have appeared in five European Championships before this one. They have never failed to get beyond the group phase.

- Portugal have played Holland ten times in total, winning six, drawing three and losing just once. In competitive games the record is W4 D1 L1 and in tournament finals it’s two wins out of two.

- Against Denmark the balance is also highly positive. In 13 encounters Portugal have won 8 drawn two and lost three.

- Against Germany the head to head history is less encouraging, with stats of W3 D5 L8 in 16 games. However, take away the friendlies, and in competitive matches Portugal have proven a tough nut to crack for the Germans. In eight matches the Selecção have won twice, drawn three times and lost three times.

Well, I’ve convinced myself. Have I convinced you? I really must remember to buy a hat and that sun block today...

Keep bang up to date with Portugal’s progress in Ukraine and Poland by following me on twitter @portugoaldotnet.

'Group of Death' awaits Ronaldo

Posted by Tom Kundert

Cristiano Ronaldo has admitted Portugal face a huge task at this summer’s European Championship.

Portugal coach Paulo Bento has top class players at his disposal, but their form in qualifying was patchy and they had to come through a play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina to reach Poland and Ukraine. Their reward is a place in Group B alongside Denmark, Germany and Netherlands.

With Germany and Netherlands well fancied to progress deep into the tournament, Ronaldo is aware of the challenge facing his side and has dubbed the pool the "Group of Death".

"We are in the Group of Death and the priority is to qualify from the first round,” Ronaldo, who helped Real Madrid claim glory in La Liga this season, said. "We are with Germany, Netherlands and Denmark, who we were against in qualifying, but I hope we will be okay. We know that we are not favourites.”

Asked who he feels are the side to beat this summer, Ronaldo said: “This is not going to come as a surprise, it is Spain. They are a very strong team.”