||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2008
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Ronaldo holds the key for Portugal
Last tournament's beaten finalists have a lot to prove if they are to pick up a European Championship trophy for the first time in their history.
They may have only lost once in qualifying, but they endured a nervous few moments before eventually sealing their place at Euro 2008 with a 0-0 draw against fellow challengers Finland.
The Portuguese have long been known for inconsistency and recent draws against the likes of Serbia, Poland and Armenia did nothing to dispel that reputation. Historically, the 'Golden Generation' did well to reach the quarters and semis in 1996 and 2000 respectively, but going out of the 2002 World Cup in the Group stages and their shock defeat to Greece in the Euro 2004 final will live long in the memory.
Under Luis 'Big Phil' Scolari the team reached the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup in Germany and look to be making progress, but they still have a lot to do to fulfil their potential.
Certainly, in Scolari, they have one of the best coaches around and he is already attracting attention from many top clubs for when his tenure comes to an end after the tournament. Famous for his fiery temper, the Brazilian was banned for three matches in qualifying after a post-match altercation with Serbian defender Ivica Dragutinovic; but his character is often considered a positive for a national team who have been accused of lacking ambition.
Likened to an over-zealous father figure, his methods of training have also raised some eyebrows in Portugal, yet his determination to do things his own way has found favour among those who felt the Portuguese federation was too involved in the running of the team.
'I know we have to improve in the finals' was Scolari's assessment of their qualifying campaign and, with assistant Flávio Teixeira at his side, the big Brazilian would love to add the European Championship title to a collection which already includes a Copa Libertadores and World Cup winner's medal.
Aggressive and forthright, Scolari has also engendered a good team spirit within his relatively young squad and he will surely build his campaign around the form of Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been in sparkling form all year.
Unstoppable for United in both Europe and the Premier League, Ronaldo is unquestionably the best player on the planet going into the Championships and did his best to ensure that Portugal made it to Austria & Switzerland by scoring eight goals in 13 appearances.
However, despite the threat that Ronaldo brings, the Portuguese team do possess a few weak links and while they have a lot of attacking potential, are sometimes prone to the odd defensive lapse.
32-year-old goalkeeper Ricardo made a name for himself in Euro 2004 by knocking England out with some agile penalty saves, before netting the winning spot kick himself; but his inconsistent, and often eccentric, form for Real Betis has led many to question how much faith his defence have in him.
Indeed, while Chelsea's Ricardo Carvalho stands out as a 'world-class' centre-half, the Portuguese lack any other defenders of his calibre - with the possible exception of utility man Bosingwa who will soon be joining Carvalho at Stamford Bridge. Elsewhere, Valencia's Miguel has been an ever present in the qualifying campaign, but has hardly shone in a poor season for Los Che in La Liga.
Paulo Ferreira made only a handful of starts for Chelsea this season, with the Brazilian-born defender Pepe suffering a similar fate at Real Madrid; while the likes of Bruno Alves, Fernando Meira and Jorge Ribeiro have failed to do enough to cement their place in the side.
While maintaining defensive stability may be an important part of Portugal's challenge, their lack of a proven goalscorer (even with Ronaldo in the side) is an issue that could cost them a place in the final stages of the tournament.
The retirement of PSG's prolific Pauleta has left a gap in Portugal's frontline, which Scolari has struggled to fill. Benfica striker Nuno Gomes has done his best, with three goals in qualifying but, at 32, is not one for the future.
Hugo Almeida and Helder Postiga boast youthful exuberance, but neither of them match up to Pauleta, or even Gomes, in the finishing stakes.
If Portugal are to get goals, the most likely source would appear to be from an exceptionally talented and creative midfield. With the likes of seasoned campaigners Deco and Simao always keen to run at defenders, a five-man midfield would seem to suit the side, with Gomes playing up front on his own.
Indeed, Portugal are fortunate that a number of their midfielders can play in the 'second-striker' position. Simao did the job against Greece in the friendly defeat in March, while Ronaldo is a shoe-in for a free roaming role behind the main striker after his 42-goal haul this season. Sporting Lisbon captain Joao Moutinho has been tipped for greatness but may have to wait his turn, especially if he is competing with the United star for the position.
With Nani and Ricardo Quaresma proving width and a constant attacking threat, as well as some incredible dribbling skills, Scolari has a number of attacking options on his hands, even in the absence of a main target man.
Building on a two man defensive midfield, Portugal like to firm up the centre of the park with the likes of the retiring Petit, Raul Meireles or talented youngster Miguel Veloso patrolling in front of the defence.
Veloso in particular has all the attributes to be a success on the global stage and the 22-year-old has been attracting a lot of attention from Europe with some assured performances for Sporting Lisbon; although Scolari may go for the experience of Petit to start with.
Certainly the Portuguese boast one of the strongest midfields in the competition and what they lack in defensive discipline, they make up for in flair. With a decent spine of Carvalho, Ronaldo and Gomes and good squad depth, the team have a decent chance of making at least the semi-finals, if not more.
In a group where the under-achieving Czech Republic form their only real barrier to progression, Scolari's men should be in confident mood.
Their deficiencies could prove to be the difference when they come up against another top side, but riding high on the wave of success that Ronaldo has made for himself should ensure that the Portuguese can enhance their reputation at Euro 2008; as long as they don't fall victim to their old inconsistent ways.
Any comments? Email Jon Carter