Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Portugal could prove dark horses
Portugal may well have got all their World Cup 2010 panic out of the way already. Having given their supporters a succession of nervous moments during the qualifying campaign, they were presented with a tough old draw when the 32 teams were matched in Cape Town back in December.
Both looked a lot worse at the time they happened. Carlos Queiroz's men expertly negotiated an awkward-looking play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina in November, and their supposed rivals for second place in Group G, the Ivory Coast, have seen it all go wrong for them in 2010 - exiting the African Cup of Nations in the quarter-finals, scrabbling around for a new coach before settling on Sven-Goran Eriksson, and now possibly losing talismanic captain Didier Drogba at least for the group opener in Port Elizabeth.
But external factors aren't really the issue here. The major plus for Portugal is they appear settled since the traumatic start to the qualifying campaign that threatened to doom Queiroz's reign before it got off the ground. It was the September 2008 defeat to Denmark in Lisbon which shook the team, and the public. Portugal led 2-1 going into the 90th minute, only to concede twice to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It turned out to be portentous. The team didn't win a home game until the 14th month of the qualifying campaign.
Queiroz was pushed into crisis territory just a few months into the job, as his side failed to break down Albania in a night of scoreless misery in Braga, despite ending the match with four strikers on the pitch. His old image as a top-class coach, but not-quite-good-enough head coach, started to resurface. This assessment conveniently overlooked nascent problems which were unaddressed in predecessor Luiz Felipe Scolari's reign; the over-reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco, the lack of a quality centre-forward and a complete inability to master simple marking at defensive set-pieces.
Twice Portugal came within touching distance of dropping out of the reckoning even for a play-off place, firstly when Bruno Alves' last-gasp winner snatched three points in Albania last June, and then in September when debutant Liedson's goal salvaged a draw in the return against Denmark.
Though Portugal only took control of their own destiny when they defeated Hungary in Lisbon and play-off rivals Sweden slipped up in Copenhagen, the seeds of their improvement were actually sown in the midst of their struggles; in March 2009's 0-0 home draw with the Swedes.
Here, Queiroz quietly began a timely return to the principles of defensive organisation that garnered so much praise during his role in Manchester United's 2008 Champions League win. He placed Real Madrid's Pepe as a midfield holder in front of a central defensive pairing of Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves. In the eight qualifiers played from this point onwards, Portugal conceded just two goals.
Little wonder Pepe's serious knee ligament injury, sustained in a league match with Valencia in December, caused such consternation. Queiroz has given his man every chance to be fit, but took no chances in naming a 24-man squad with two possible replacements for the 27-year-old; new Valencia signing Ricardo Costa and Deportivo La Coruna's Ze Castro, who has since been cut to create the final 23.
Tuesday's final warm-up friendly against ertswhile colony (and birthplace of both Eusebio and Mario Coluna) Mozambique at Johannesburg cricket mecca the Wanderers, gives Queiroz the chance to include Pepe in his first XI, which he has confirmed he will. He also has the luxury of having seen Sporting's Pedro Mendes excel in the role in Tuesday's convincing win over a strong-looking Cameroon.
The Cameroon game was a truer indicator of Portugal's current shape than the lacklustre draw with minnows Cape Verde, the sort of glorified training session that made one wonder why it was granted the status of an official match. The displays of Raul Meireles (who scored twice) and Deco, belying recent club form, made Portugal's widely-available tournament odds of 25/1 look a reasonable punt.
Liedson's role in the team's happier-looking shape is important. The 32-year-old has been plying his trade in Portugal for seven seasons, during which time he has struck over 150 goals in all competitions for Sporting.
Selected by Queiroz as soon as his Portuguese citizenship was approved, Liedson has brought all the tireless running and harrying, as well as the goals which have made him such a hit down the years, into the side. Portugal have always had great wingers - Figo, Simao, Cristiano Ronaldo - but haven't gone into a major tournament with a centre-forward likely to trouble top-class opposition since Nuno Gomes' heyday in Euro 2000. It looks like the wait is over.
The key aspect of Liedson's inclusion is that it finally allows the team's star to do what he does best. Cristiano Ronaldo had an unusually quiet qualifying campaign, failing to score once. Much is made of Diego Maradona's challenge in getting Lionel Messi's club form out of him for Argentina, but Queiroz has faced a similar challenge with Ronaldo, sometimes even using him in the centre.
With a quality central striker in place, the Real Madrid man is free to blaze his trail up the right-hand side. Nani's injury means Portugal are likely to face the Ivory Coast with a slightly less fearsome, and flexible, front three than they would have had, but they will still be a threat.
The Ivorians' problems mean Portugal have an excellent chance of reaching the second round - where a fairly substantial obstacle awaits, with a probable clash with Spain. A loss would be painful, but hardly disgraceful, especially taken in the context of their position halfway through the qualifying campaign. However, by then Ronaldo should have filled his boots against a porous Ivory Coast backline and group whipping boys North Korea.
And four years on from Germany, wouldn't it be just like Ronaldo to delight in putting one over the country in which he makes his living all over again?