Wednesday, October 17, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: October 18, 2:50 PM UK
Ronaldo's big night falls flat
Andy Brassell, Estadio do Dragao
The manner in which the rain teemed down on Porto and the wind blew it into all four corners of the Estadio do Dragao evoked thoughts of Manchester as much as it did those of northern Portugal. As the locals celebrated Cristiano Ronaldo becoming only the third player to make 100 appearances for the Portuguese national team, it was the closest we got to a fitting backdrop for their greatest player's special night.
If anything was going to derail Portugal, it seemed likely to be this occasion's almost testimonial feel. Ronaldo picked up a medal before kick-off to commemorate his century, and the stadium's east stand unveiled a huge banner in English and Portuguese hailing the achievement by "the best in the world".
It had seemed a danger in the build-up, with the result almost assumed. Intensity was notable by its absence as Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa paid the Portugal delegation a visit at Monday's training session, laughing and joking with his former captain Bruno Alves and making chatter with Ronaldo.
So it came to pass, with the Mexican wave being debuted around the chilly stands on the half-hour, seconds before Niall McGinn burst through a flat-footed defence to gleefully lift the ball over an advancing Rui Patricio and give the visitors a shock lead. The opening stanza of this match had unfolded in a torpor, despite its status as a World Cup qualifier in front of a near-50,000 crowd.
Northern Ireland's goal certainly awakened a fire in the Portugal captain's belly, with the referee and his assistant both copping a fearsome blast shortly after McGinn's goal, having failed to award a corner after Joao Moutinho's delivery had been headed behind. Moments later, Ronaldo smashed a shot against the bar from close range and the trademark flail of the arms made us begin to imagine that it might not be his - or Portugal's - night.
October at the Dragao is ripe with meaning for Paulo Bento's Portugal. It was here and in this month two years ago that he made his bow as national team boss with a breathless victory over Denmark, and this time last year Iceland were the victims in Porto in an eight-goal thriller.
This night never threatened to catch fire in quite the same way. Bento was criticised for his tactical limitations during his spell in charge of Sporting, and there has been something quite inert about Portugal since the Euros. The 4-3-3 that functioned with such fluidity and adventure in the coach's first year in charge does have the tendency to lazily drop into a more cautious 4-1-4-1 when the commitment to attack is anything less than absolute, and Helder Postiga is not much of a '1' in that shape.
One of Ronaldo's own chief talents - as pointed out by one of his greatest champions, Luiz Felipe Scolari, in a TV interview on the day of the game - is that he's constantly moving, learning, evolving and improving. Against Russia on Friday, the early loss of his habitual partner in crime on the left side, his Real Madrid team-mate Fabio Coentrao, was a big blow.
Here - realising that Coentrao's replacement for these two games, Miguel Lopes, is too right-footed to offer similar complicity - he took the burden squarely upon his shoulders, bossing possession in the early stages, twisting and turning on the far-left touchline in a bright exhibition of old-fashioned wing play.
What quickly became clear is that this wasn't one of those occasions on which Ronaldo could single-handedly blow away the shortcomings of those around him. Faced with an uncommonly dogged Northern Irish backline, Bento hooked Lopes at the interval, introducing Braga's Ruben Amorim in midfield and moving defensive sentinel Miguel Veloso to left-back.
Yet too many of Bento's charges were not at the races when the task of breaking down Michael O'Neill's resilient side demanded guile. Nani was again intermittent at best. Even if Postiga eventually snared a face-saving equaliser, he didn't have a good night. He guided a Miguel Lopes cross onto the outside of Roy Carroll's far post in the game's second minute when he should have done better, and that was the first in a handful of presentable chances that he failed to make count on a night that recalled his Premier League travails with Tottenham.
Critics will ask why Bento's best physical option at centre-forward, Eder, was only thrown on with the game approaching the final 15 minutes and with Portugal already looking for snookers. The in-form Braga man quickly proved to be the necessary tonic, with his headed knockdown creating a chance that even the profligate Postiga couldn't waste.
By then Bento was winging it, throwing caution to the not inconsiderable wind with a three-man defence. Given some of the defensive shortcomings of the opening period, such as the early moment when Pepe's throw caught Patricio off guard and forced the goalkeeper to slice out of play for a corner, he wasn't losing much in terms of security.
With automatic qualification out of Portugal's reach for now, Bento will not seek to hide or pass the buck. "The only one who made a mistake on Russia's goal was me - it wasn't any player," he said in the build-up to the game, defending Ruben Micael's loose pass in the build-up to Russia's winner. "It's me who encourages them to play in that way, it's me who prepares the training so they play that way, because I can't ask these players just to hit the ball wherever and not to construct moves."
In the desperate closing stages at the Dragao, just hitting the ball "wherever" was pretty much what Portugal were doing. Bento has been stoutly protected throughout his reign as Portugal coach by Ronaldo's support, but he has some work to do if he is to guide the team to Brazil - let alone if he is to be in charge for Ronaldo's 150th cap.