Portugal Camp Focus – Off to a bad start

Portugal commenced their World Cup warm-up matches in less than convincing style with a goalless draw against Cape Verde Islands. Whilst the draw represents a famous result for the former Portuguese colony, serious questions have been posed to Carlos Queiroz ahead of this summer’s tournament in South Africa.

A goalless draw against a side ranked 114 places below them in the FIFA World Rankings is a less than ideal start to the campaign. As is to be expected when facing such lowly opposition, the Portuguese had the lion’s share of both possession and pressure, but failed to convert their dominance into victory. Having stumbled through qualifying, reaching the tournament thanks largely to a solid defence, Portugal again lacked a cutting edge to break down their opponents. The Coach alluded to the “intensive training” the players had undergone and this may have had some bearing on the Selecao’s lacklustre finishing. Even so, victory should have been secured. A 1-0 win would have been less than convincing but would have provided some momentum heading into their next match against Cameroon. Instead, very few factors were provided that could be deemed positive heading into Tuesday’s match, and an air of negativity is beginning to surround the side, even if morale within the camp is maintained.

Trying to put a brave face on the situation, Queiroz asserted that: “This was a training match. We’ve only been together a few days and you can’t expect too much. But we showed the tactical discipline and awareness which I wanted to see.” Certainly the Coach’s strong selection gave a hint as to the probable starting line-up ahead of their opening match against Ivory Coast on June 15. The robust central defensive partnership of Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho was maintained, as was Paulo Ferreira’s selection, slotting in at right-back in Jose Bosingwa’s absence through injury. Yet it was Fabio Coentrao’s selection and subsequent permformance at left-back that raised eyebrows. The Benfica man displaced Malaga’s Duda to win only his second full cap as he looks to carry his impressive club form into the tournament. On the back of a title-winning season, Coentrao has struck a blow, laying claim to a starting berth, much to the delight of the Benfica fans who were somewhat disenchanted that Queiroz overlooked some of their leading lights. Coentrao’s attacking play down the left flank was one of the few positives to arise from the dismal result and allayed the squad’s lack of a natural left-winger. The width he provided allowed Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo to roam inside and attack the goal and add balance to an otherwise fluid attacking contingent.

The players showed a degree of cohesion and uniformity in their post-match comments to the media even if these qualities were sadly lacking from their performance on the field. Captain Ronaldo, guilty of missing several clear-cut chances, played down the significance of the result, echoing the Coach’s sentiments: “We are only at the beginning, it was just a warm-up match to get us into shape.” Possibly too much is being read into the result, but it neatly highlights the importance of, and reliance upon, the Real Madrid front-man. During qualifying, they certainly lacked the captain’s dynamism, and despite being a nation renowned for producing attacking wingers, were slow and ponderous in the build-up to attacks. Even with him in the side against Cape Verde, the same lethargy that beset their qualification campaign was in evidence once more. Ronaldo showed glimpses of what he can produce, but ultimately flattered to deceive, resurrecting the criticism that he fails to live up to the standards he sets in club football.

It is a worrying trait that the side is so reliant upon a player who only produces his best football on the club scene. In his youth, a string of stunning performances in Euro 2004 saw him take over the mantle from Luis Figo, but tellingly, he benefitted from the fearless nature of youth and the fervour that comes with the tournament being hosted in your own country. After being marked out of the game by England’s Ashley Cole in the quarter-finals, he failed to scale the heights again in the tournament and produced ultimately limited performances in both the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008. Amazingly his last goal for Portugal came in Euro 2008, adding credence to the myth that he has not produced his best for the Selecao.

The general consensus is that without Ronaldo on top form, Portugal will struggle to progress. As much in defiance of this as a sign of frustration at the team’s fortunes he declared that: “I don’t play alone and I can’t perform miracles.” For now, even Ronaldo, with his incomparable talent and ego to match, appears to be succumbing to the pressure and negativity surrounding the camp.

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