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May 26, 2010

Cape of no hope

Nike's sublime new advert culminates with Cristiano Ronaldo's destiny being mapped out - a guest spot on The Simpsons, Ronaldo: The Movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal and, appropriately for such a committed narcissist, a huge statue being unveiled in his honour - but after a dismal result on Monday night, being asked to 'Write The Future' is proving particularly difficult for a talented, but flawed Portugal side.

Cristiano Ronaldo
GettyImagesCristiano Ronaldo: Not scored for 16 months

On a night when England defeated Mexico 3-1 and Argentina hammered Canada 5-0, undoubtedly the standout result came in the town of Covilha as Portugal somehow contrived to draw 0-0 with Cape Verde Islands, a team ranked 117th in the world, just behind Botswana. Portugal's former colony have given Carlos Queiroz's side a bloody nose, and another reason to feel concerned with the finals in South Africa fast approaching, and Brazil and Ivory Coast to come in Group G.

Queiroz attempted to paint the result in a positive light, saying: "for those who do not understand what a preparation match is all about it's easy to criticise. But the team did what I wanted and it was principally a disciplined and organised game."

They may have been semi-finalists in 2006 under Luiz Felipe Scolari, but that achievement was pulled from the dying embers of a much-feted Golden Generation that failed to translate huge potential into tangible success. The worry for the new generation is that a similar sense of entitlement, or palpable potential, is worryingly absent at present. Qualification itself was something of a trauma. Having won only one of their first five matches, Portugal finally snuck ahead of Sweden to take a play-off place, going on to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 on aggregate.

Despite recently blooding new talents such as left-back Fabio Coentrao, defensive concerns are not paramount as Portugal have not conceded in seven games. Instead a team that boasts Deco, Nani, Liedson and, of course, Ronaldo is being held back by a lack of creativity and invention. That was never more evident than on Monday night when all four players started, and failed to find a way past the superbly named Fredson Fock.

Ronaldo remains unconcerned though. "Of course we wanted to win," said Homer Simpson's cartoon tormentor, "but there's a lot to take into consideration because it was only a preparation game and I'm sure we'll get to the World Cup much better, both physically or psychologically, and will demonstrate that we are a great team."

But as Portuguese publication Maisfutebol put it, 'Não cheira a Mundial' (It doesn't smell like the World Cup). In fact, Portugal are in danger of stinking the place out.

TAKESHI'S HOME NOT HIS CASTLE

Japan also suffered a chastening experience on Monday, as Takeshi Okada's side slumped to a 2-0 defeat to South Korea in their final game on home soil before travelling to Europe for their Alpine training camp and preparatory friendlies against England and Ivory Coast. Such was the disappointing nature of the performance at Saitama Stadium - their second home defeat to South Korea in four months - Okada even sought out the head of the Japan Football Association, Motoaki Inukai, to ask if he was still in a job. "I asked the president if he wanted me to continue and he said 'do it'," Okada said in his post-match press conference. "It is not that I have lost my confidence. I just asked if he wanted me to continue and I warned him that he would take a lot of flak if he did."

Japan were also beaten 3-0 by Serbia in Osaka in April, while back-to-back 0-0 draws against Venezuela and China in February also generated real cause for concern. As a result, Okada's bold declaration in January that his side would reach the semi-finals looks farcical. Just six days ago he would not backtrack on that claim - telling reporters, "South Korea did it (in 2002) so why can't we?" - but with the team being booed by home fans and the coach basically offering to quit so close to the finals, it appears the Blue Samurai are ill-equipped to win their first ever World Cup game outside of Japan.

PLAYER IN FOCUS: Michael Carrick

Michael Carrick was given the runaround by Mexico
GettyImagesMichael Carrick was given the runaround by Mexico

Just 12 short months ago on Friday, Michael Carrick was in the starting XI for Manchester United as they contested the Champions League final against Barcelona. After being harassed and humbled by the twin talents of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, it is arguable that the midfielder has never recovered and a listless performance against Mexico on Monday may well see him cut from Fabio Capello's squad.

On his day, Carrick is a very un-English midfielder - composed, even elegant in possession, and able to dictate the tempo of a game - but he has not been at his best during what has been a horrible season. With Owen Hargreaves failing to make the preliminary squad and Gareth Barry out injured, Carrick wasted a golden chance to impress. Tom Huddlestone, his successor as Tottenham's midfield conductor, may take full advantage.

WORLD CUP QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Having already kicked Michael Ballack out of the World Cup, Kevin-Prince Boateng leaves no one in any doubt that he is determined to beat Germany, the country of his birth, when they meet Ghana in Group D. "Obviously, the Germany game is a special one for me," Boateng said. "But I can promise the Ghana fans this: I play to win, even against my brother - or my father or mother, for that matter."