“I remember winning in 2008, because I played in it, but I don’t remember ’96 too well,” Joao Moutinho said the day before Portugal met Czech Republic, on being asked about historical precedent between the teams. “I was only ten, but the past is the past anyway,” he continued, separating himself from the large segment of the Portuguese public that still have nightmares about Karel Poborsky’s audacious chip over Vitor Baia which settled the Euro 96 quarter-final at Villa Park.
Of course, that Czech side was of a finer vintage. Current technical director Vladimir Smicer, Patrik Berger and former Fiorentina midfielder Lubos Kubik all had to battle for a place in the first XI. In their prime, they would all have walked into this side, regardless of the not-inconsiderable merits of Theodor Gebre Selassie and Petr Jiracek. The presence of Michal Kadlec, the son of ’96 centre-back Miroslav, only serves to emphasise how far away that era is.
Nevertheless, Michal Bilek has shaped a willing and industrious side, and backed by a combination of travelling fans and extremely sympathetic locals, they presented a bigger challenge than many were ready to recognise. As Portugal’s superior resources began to tell after the first half-hour, the Czechs dropped back to invite Paulo Bento’s team to break them; partly because Portugal’s more fluent rhythm forced them to, and partly because playing exclusively on the counter-attack, using the pace of Jiracek and his soon-to-be Wolfsburg team-mate Vaclav Pilar, represented their best hope.
For Portugal, patience was the name of the game, maintaining their poise and rhythm, and remembering their coach’s pugnacious words from the pre-game press conference that they would “not change our style for anyone”. The key to maintaining this shape, as it has been throughout the tournament, was the midfield pair of Moutinho and Miguel Veloso.
They know each other well, having come through the Sporting Clube de Portugal youth academy at the same time. For a while, it looked as if they could push club and country on to glory together, but they lost their way, as did their club. At the same time, the national team struggled to regenerate a squad crumbling in the final days of Luiz Felipe Scolari, with a number of high-profile retirements – and Moutinho, Veloso and their peers not ready to step in for them.
Both were sold in the summer of 2010, with Veloso making the step up to Serie A – albeit with the dark horses of Genoa – but Moutinho’s path was a lot more daring. Whereas both midfielders had admirers all over Europe, Moutinho had always been the one destined for big things. Appointed Sporting captain for the first time when still a teenager, he exuded authority from the get-go, largely through his cool head and extraordinary technical stature, with an uncommonly good eye for passing.
By the time it came to leave Sporting, Moutinho went via the back door. The long-mooted move abroad hadn’t materialised, but there was still considerable disbelief when news broke that the midfielder seemed set to leave the Estadio Jose Alvalade – for domestic rivals Porto. The fee was a relatively low €10 million and president Jose Eduardo Bettencourt called him a “rotten apple”, spinning the tale as if the club were taking necessary action to remove a disruptive influence.
Moutinho has done all his talking on the pitch since arriving at the Dragao, and made now-former president Bettencourt look very foolish in the process. Following Porto’s Europa League win last year in Dublin, under Andre Villas-Boas, Moutinho told journalists that he was immediately convinced by the northerners’ project when they discussed a move with him. He knew it would be hard but this was the point, at 23, where he had to go the extra mile if he really wanted to make the most of career.
The overwhelming evidence from this Euro is that he is doing just that now. While the world has understandably fixated on the form of the phenomenon that is Cristiano Ronaldo, Moutinho has gone unobtrusively about trimming teams to pieces with that wonderful passing, which is now sharper than ever. The examples are numerous.
In the opening match against Germany, he found Ronaldo with an unbelievably precise through ball, only for the captain to be denied the opener by a superb last-ditch challenge from Jerome Boateng. Moutinho was the architect of Ronaldo’s winner against Netherlands in Kharkiv, splitting a high Dutch defence to release Nani, who centred for the goal.
Here in Warsaw, Moutinho could have created a hatful, just as Portugal could have scored many more. He was key in wresting back control of the game after a fast start from the Czechs, and slipped Ronaldo through beautifully again only for referee Howard Webb to pull the forward up for a foul on Kadlec before he shot at Petr Cech. When Moutinho finally unpicked the lock, it was from an unfamiliar position, as he pulled wide to provide the service that Nani had only sporadically offered, and sent the ball right to Ronaldo to bury a header.
It was a fitting union between the pair, Portugal's two best players at Euro 2012 – with apologies to Fabio Coentrao and Pepe – and a duo whose effectiveness on the international stage has been revived under Paulo Bento's management.
The coach organises just as he talks – in straightforward, unflashy terms – and his recipe for making Moutinho a key player has been parallel to his approach with Ronaldo. The star man's increased productivity has been a result of the simple trust vested in him by Bento, leaving him to reprise his Real Madrid role, starting on the left and cutting in.
Similarly, Moutinho has a near replica of his environment at Porto, as part of an amorphous, dynamic midfield three, one of the main reasons for Bento's success with the national team. With the familiar Veloso behind him to control things – in roughly the same function as, say, Fernando performs at Porto – Moutinho has the platform to shuttle back and forth as well as letting his inner playmaker shine through.
That Bento should see fit to afford him this platform is a huge compliment. Moutinho may be a more multi-purpose player than the much-missed Deco, as well as lacking the former Barcelona midfielder's goal threat, but he is right for this team.
It is no wonder that Moutinho remembered that match four years ago in Geneva, when he was still Deco's apprentice. During that Euro 2008 match against the Czechs, the pair played together. Now the baton has passed, Moutinho is showing the maturity and vision to lead from the front in 2012.© ESPN