If, as has been speculated, and insultingly so, Germany and the United States contrive to eliminate Portugal and Ghana by settling for a favourable result, it would give Paulo Bento the perfect scapegoat for the Iberians’ elimination.
Rather than look inward – perhaps at the decision not to put faith in William Carvalho, as France have done Paul Pogba – a convenient draw between Group G’s top two, coupled with Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury and Pepe’s first game red card, could be Bento’s get out of jail free card.
Portugal need to beat Ghana, the USA to lose to Germany, and for a five-goal swing to go in their favour across the two games. Stranger things have happened in the World Cup – Costa Rica are playing Greece in the Round of 16, after all – but not many. It was always a difficult group to get out of but A Seleccao have made it look spectacularly so.
It’s only Silvestre Varela’s late goal against the United States that has kept Portugal interested this long. It took a Herculean effort from Ronaldo, perhaps all he could muster after a gruelling season that ended with him suffering from myriad injuries, to supply the cross. This was after the United States dominated the game and should have sealed their place already.
But the first-ever meeting between Portugal and Ghana could already be tipped away from the Africans. Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng have been sent home after an unseemly incident with the Coach, Kwesi Appiah, and a row over squad bonuses. Muntari would have been banned for the final round anyway but the disharmony and discontent in the squad doesn’t point to a good performance being imminent.
It’s most likely that Germany and the United States will move on to the round of 16 whatever happens in the final round of fixtures. Stich-ups have been alleged frequently in international tournaments and the fact that the USA have a German Coach plays nicely into the nonsensical narrative. Maybe a first-stage exit will jolt Portugal into refreshing their squad for the next competition as the group of players in Brazil has largely been together the past eight years.
France have led the way. Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Raphel Varane and others have given Les Bleus a new coat of paint. The 1998 winners have gone from barely mentioned to quietly backed and Carvalho could have been Portugal’s Pogba, Rafa Silva their Griezmann. Instead, with Ronaldo crumpling under the weight of carrying the team, Bento’s stuck-in-the-mud selections, as much as any outside factor, have precipitated an early departure.
Many of the current squad won’t be around in four years’ time. Nine of the 23 are in their early 30s and a couple more will join them on their next birthday. The decision to regenerate will then be made for Bento – although it’s far from certain he’ll be the Coach to carry out the process.