Old rivals play it safe
Those expecting the most exciting day of World Cup action so far - with Portugal playing Brazil followed by Spain against Chile - must be so disappointed with the curtain raiser. It was a deflating affair, summed up by Cristiano Ronaldo's forlorn kick at the turf in the game's dying embers as the ball once again failed to reach him. Yet once the dust settles he, like the rest of the players, may well look back at a job well done.
Perhaps it was always destined to be thus. The group situation decreed that a draw would suit both camps, with Brazil needing a point to clinch top spot in the group and Portugal requiring the same to assure qualification. There was, however, never any question of collusion. It matters to both these great rivals every time they play one another, for historical reasons and more besides. Carlos Queiroz's men in particular had something to prove this time, having been humiliated (6-2) in the last encounter between the sides in Brasilia, back in November 2008.
Queiroz tweaked both formation and personnel in a plan to avoid a similar mugging, but also to make use of the lessons from the group opener with Ivory Coast, when his side were outmuscled and accordingly ended up hanging on to a draw for much of the second half. Dunga's Brazil are nothing if not rugged - as a gaggle of critics in the Brazilian media are tripping over themselves to point out - and in possession of better quality players than Sven-Goran Eriksson's side. The coach needed no telling that Portugal had to be more solid this time.
His selection was a very deliberate attempt to match Brazil physically. The tough Ricardo Costa was the biggest surprise, coming in at right back, while Duda came in on the left to provide some extra protection for Fabio Coentrao against the marauding duo of Maicon and Dani Alves - with Cristiano Ronaldo moving to centre-forward. Coentrao has belied his inexperience to be Portugal's outstanding performer to this point but is a natural left winger and has only begun playing at full back for Benfica this season. Queiroz obviously decided he could do with some help.
It proved to be a decent theory. The again-impressive 22-year-old was at fault for the best chance of the first half, allowing Maicon to dig out a cross from an unfavourable position in the 39th minute, only for Luis Fabiano to send his header wide when well-placed. Brazil's only other clear chance of the half had come from their right, too, when Eduardo superbly tipped Nilmar's effort onto the bar, with Costa dozing at the back post.
Though the first half failed to provide the football fiesta that neutrals had been hoping for since the draw was made (perhaps in vain, given that it was the third and final group game), it did successfully bin any notion that the two sides were taking it easy. It was fractious and scrappy, though a needlessly fussy performance from referee Benito Archundia Tellez didn't help. He cautioned seven players before the break, the most contentious being Tiago for diving when he received a push in the back from Gilberto Silva, and Juan, who could easily have seen red for preventing Ronaldo from getting a clear run on goal with a cynical handball.
It was quite a (re-)baptism of fire for Pepe, starting his first match since rupturing cruciate knee ligaments in Real Madrid's match at Valencia in early December. The Brazilian-born defender - playing as a defensive midfielder - had an eventful afternoon, receiving one of the seven yellows before being flattened by opposite number Felipe Melo, who Dunga almost immediately took off to avoid the Juventus man getting himself into further bother.
This incident seemed to be a tipping point in the game. It was a step too far, after which both teams pulled back from the edge. The pattern of the first half thus shaped the second, but not in the way that spectators would have hoped. Portugal and especially Brazil dropped down a gear or two, as if telling themselves that greater battles were yet to come, and further disciplinary transgression could handicap them further into the competition.
Portugal did at least make a few positive moves in the second half. Ronaldo's switch to the left wing, where he had combined so beautifully with Coentrao in the walloping of North Korea, brought early promise, with a couple of threatening runs into the space behind Maicon. Portugal's best chance, in the 60th minute when Raul Meireles provoked a fine save from Julio Cesar after an excellent Ronaldo run, showed that the captain was at last getting support from a hitherto discreet midfield.
This was never likely to be another free-flowing performance from the Quinas after North Korea. Portugal hadn't changed overnight - their recovery from a precarious position in World Cup qualifying has been built on a miserly defence, and the record now stands at three goals conceded in the last 18 games after this draw in Durban. This back line will continue to be their base, and Pepe's role in front of it will become more significant as they progress.
At least the unsung Eduardo got the chance for a few plaudits. Besides his stop from Nilmar, he preserved parity in injury time with an excellent tip away from Ramires' heavily-deflected shot. The ability to pull off stops of such magnitude after long periods of inactivity marks him out as someone who is becoming a genuine top-class goalkeeper.
Whenever Portugal play Brazil, it's all in, or not at all. Unfortunately for the viewing public, a bruising first 45 minutes gave way to interval discussion, calm and common sense on both sides. So in the end, it was not at all.