Duo ready for grand finale
So to Lisbon, where not only Portugal will be relieved to be fighting out a Euro 2012 finals berth on Benfica's snooker table of a pitch. A surface at the Stadium Bilino Polje that Cristiano Ronaldo tersely dismissed as a "vegetable patch" may have had a hand in keeping one of the world's most prolific forwards at bay on Friday, but it did little for Bosnia-Herzegovina's own hopes either.
The home side's classy midfield pair of Miralem Pjanic and Zvjezdan Misimovic were also drowning in a sea of divots in Zenica. The latter, as silky smooth a playmaker as you will ever set eyes on, did at least manage to become more influential as the match went on. The Dynamo Moscow man expertly created a brace of highly presentable chances for substitute Vedad Ibisevic late on - neither of which the striker could take.
Ibisevic's key miss in the last ten minutes - clubbing over the bar after Misimovic sent him clean through - elicited sympathy rather than ire, as the ball cruelly leapt up off the fractured turf as he swung at it. It might have appeared a thin excuse had the same thing not happened to Ronaldo in the other major moment that might have shaped the destiny of the tie, after Nani's flick put him in. The seething reaction of Portugal's captain after he sent his effort wide was the only time he let his frustration show during a testing 90 minutes.
From the moment on Wednesday afternoon when the Portugal delegation touched down at Sarajevo airport, they felt that the locals' plan was clear - to chip away at Ronaldo's nerves at every possible opportunity. As the squad walked through the arrival hall, a couple of hundred locals chanted 'Messi, Messi' as Real Madrid's talisman allowed himself a good-natured grin.
Ronaldo was somewhat less impressed when a group of local teenagers scaled a fence to intrude on the squad's private practice session on Thursday to reprise the chants in favour of his Barcelona counterpart and shine a laser pen at him. The front cover of Friday's O Jogo showed an understandably peeved Ronaldo offering a gloved middle finger to the errant youths.
It was clear in his pugnacious post-match words to the media in Zenica that Ronaldo had been through the mill, and that he had been holding his breath. While laughing off repeated laser pen sightings as "a poor excuse for a disco", he knew that Bosnia had aimed to provoke him into earning the yellow card that would have seen him miss the return match through suspension. "I know I couldn't get booked," he said.
The Portuguese camp's assertion of a planned destabilisation campaign between complicit fans and players was nevertheless a little far-fetched. The locals merely saw their own cat-calling as gentle banter. Certainly, their targeting of Ronaldo was a clear recognition of the respect he commands as the biggest threat to their hopes of making it to Poland and Ukraine. His displays at club level have made him an idol in Bosnia, and there were as many Real Madrid shirts as Barcelona ones in the crowd that greeted Portugal at the airport.
Containment was Bosnia's plan, and will probably continue to be in Lisbon. This was the first time Portugal have drawn a blank under Paulo Bento, after scoring 30 times in the first 12 games of his spell in command. Statistically speaking, this shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Bosnia are unbeaten in seven and have conceded just one goal in that time - Samir Nasri's penalty for France in the final qualifier. Yet they were shorn of three of their regular back four, and both Boris Pandza and Rangers' Sasa Papac were banned after receiving yellow cards in France. They will return at the Estádio da Luz.
That clean sheet may well prove key. As Pjanic said post-match, a goal in Lisbon will put Safet Susic's men in the driving seat. In short, a repeat of the score draw achieved at the Stade de France last month will see Bosnia through to Euro 2012.
The pragmatic Susic admitted he expected to take the tie to the wire from the start. "If I'd have started with two strikers, we may have scored one, but we might have conceded two as well," he said. He also confessed that the Zenica pitch coloured his approach, and that he initially instructed his players to simply punt it long to Edin Dzeko. A better pitch may allow a more expansive approach in the return.
Susic's tactics will certainly be under close scrutiny in Bosnia, with many still rueing his predecessor Miroslav Blazovic's approach to the corresponding fixture two years ago, in the pair's World Cup qualifying play-off. Blazovic chose to start with Dzeko and Ibisevic, but without the influential Pjanic, and the folly in such a plan quickly became acutely apparent. Portugal created a raft of chances while Misimovic was largely starved of the ball. In the closing stages, after Pjanic's entrance and a tactical reshuffle, only the frame of the goal prevented first Dzeko and then Ibisevic from wiping out the hosts' narrow advantage and keeping them from advancing.
"I'm hoping for a full stadium supporting us - and having a bit of patience," said Bento after Friday's game. The Portugal boss could pat himself on the back for his own planning, with his team having produced what he described as an "organised, cohesive and courageous performance" in Zenica, and it is clear that the returns of Fabio Coentrao and the outstanding Pepe have made Portugal a completely different proposition to the side which endured a series of defensive pratfalls in the closing brace of qualifiers against Iceland and Denmark.
Whether your view is that Bosnia have leapt forward or Portugal have regressed, it is clear that matters are even more finely balanced than they were two years ago. Perhaps it would represent a degree of poetic justice if Ronaldo sealed the deal for Portugal at the Luz - where he most famously exercised that middle finger against baying Benfica fans while at Manchester United in 2005.