Tension and tetchiness ruin Portugal
As opening nights go, it was more a brief wave of a sparkler in the drizzle than letting off a Catherine Wheel from the bandstand in the park. Portugal may have extended their impressive recent defensive record - this was their 11th clean sheet in 13 games - but this was about the only bright spot for coach Carlos Queiroz after a drab stalemate in Port Elizabeth.
It all started so promisingly. Portugal's whole approach cried positivity, from perhaps the most passionate team rendition of a national anthem (if a touch off-key) so far in the tournament to Queiroz's team selection. A conservative by nature, he ditched Duda, who had seen him through most of qualifying, and played the younger, in-form Fabio Coentrao of Benfica at left-back. Queiroz also eschewed the safe option of replacing the injured Nani with Simao, going for Danny, who had been excellent in last week's final pre-tournament friendly against Mozambique.
The team's superstar captain also led from the front. After having an early free-kick sighter from an absurdly long way out, Cristiano Ronaldo looked to light the blue touch paper in the 11th minute, beautifully spinning away from Yaya Toure before crashing a 25-yarder off the right-hand post.
Had Ronaldo's strike been a few inches further inside Boubacar Barry's upright, the remainder of the match would surely have unfolded very differently. Sven-Goran Eriksson is a laudable coach, but affecting tactical change mid-match is not his strong point. It would have been interesting to see how he would have reacted.
As it was, the Ivory Coast coach's plan of sit, wait, then break worked fine as it was, as the game broke up and Portuguese tension - and tetchiness, with Ronaldo booked after clashing with Guy Demel - rose to the surface. Not that we should confuse vastly improved team shape and defensive solidity with a negative approach. It was the Elephants who created the better chances, more often than not through Gervinho, the game's only truly effective attacking force. He drew a save from Eduardo early in the second period and drove Portugal's defence to distraction as the Ivorians took the upper hand as the game progressed, often from an unfamiliar left-sided role too.
All of this was achieved without a fully-fit Didier Drogba, cleared by FIFA to play with a protective cast on his recently broken arm but not deemed by Eriksson to be in the condition to begin the match. Portugal's evening would have been a whole lot worse if a 100% sharp Drogba, rather than today's version, had made the most of Kader Keita's slide-rule pass in injury-time. A looping header by Liedson, which barely stretched Barry, was about the best Portugal had to offer in the second half.
So why did Portugal run aground? Simply, too many key players failed to the jobs that they were in the XI to perform. Liedson's presence in the side is supposed to give Ronaldo the licence to get wide, but his lack of progress against the far more physical Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora forced the captain to drift further and further infield and run ever more into traffic, to his obvious frustration.
Given the role on the left, Danny drifted in of his own accord, betraying the roots of his role at club level for Zenit St Petersburg and his original status in the squad as back-up to Deco. Demel and the excellent Siaka Tiene are often deployed in midfield rather than full-back at club level, and needed to be tested more on the outside. Danny failed miserably, and Simao - a more natural touchline-hugger - fared little better after coming on for him as substitute.
It was always a concern pre-match that Portugal would fail to match up physically to the Ivory Coast in the centre of the park, where Eriksson's squad are blessed with plenty of muscle and the Iberians badly missed Pepe. Even considering this Deco was as disappointing in this game as he had been influential in Euro 2008, rarely raising his speed above jogging pace. He is more extravagantly gifted than Tiago, but Queiroz will surely give serious consideration to including the Juve midfielder (an accomplished passer) at his expense for the second group game.
The Ivorians deserve huge credit too, for a robust display which spoke volumes for the motivational qualities of Eriksson, as well as his planning, in turning around a mess of a side in double-quick time. But with North Korea - who Portugal face next in Cape Town on Monday - widely expected to "park the bus," to use the parlance of a great Portuguese, one has to be concerned about the inability of Queiroz's side to find a way through a determined backline.
Queiroz is lucky - the fixture scheduling has been kind to him. Assuming that Brazil roll over North Korea and the Ivory Coast in their first two fixtures and clinch qualification, Portugal can hope for an easier ride against Dunga's side in Durban than Eriksson's men will get in Johannesburg five days before. Of course, there is always a competitive element to a match-up between Portugal and Brazil given the nature of their colonial history, but Dunga may not be averse to resting a few stars ahead of more taxing tests to come should his charges already be assured safe passage to the second round.
The question is, can Portugal keep it alive into game number three? Queiroz already admitted to the press in the post-Ivory Coast press conference that his side will have to "take more risks" from here on in, but the line-up for this game was supposed to be a best-foot-forward type of selection. A good tactical rethink is required to get the Group G campaign back on track. But what if Portugal's players simply don't have it in them to change things?