One-man band prepares to leave town
It only takes a few hours for an entire nation to swap cautious optimism for resigned depression. Portugal's attempts to gain qualification from the notoriously tight Group G has seen emotions plummet, rise a little and then dive again -- and now the country's pulse is as weak as ever.
The 2-2 draw with a spirited and energetic United States means the dream is all but over, despite the late rally. From Nani's quick opener -- Portugal's third-fastest World Cup goal ever -- to Silvestre Varela's injury-time equaliser, Paulo Bento's men offered fans yet another example of "what might have been".
- Final Group Games: All the possible permutations
Those of a Portuguese persuasion could have been forgiven for thinking they had turned a corner. Nani put them ahead in no time at all but ultimately pragmatism proved their downfall. Forced into making so many changes because of the unnecessary suspension of Pepe and widespread injury problems, Bento shied away from the one change that really needed to be made: the inclusion of midfield powerhouse William Carvalho. In a three-man midfield badly in need of a fillip, the strongly constructed Sporting Lisbon man would have made a significant difference in that crucial area of the field where dominance is gained and lost.
When he finally did appear, owing to yet more injury problems halfway through the second game in the tournament, Bento's men had been depleted further. By half-time, Andre Almeida and Helder Postiga had been added to the list of injuries that have decimated the Portuguese squad. Surely, when the inevitable post mortem takes place, one of several key questions begging to be answered will be this scarcely believable plethora of injuries. It is not the sole reason for the impending failure, but it has played a huge role in destabilising team selection.
They were a shadow of their real selves against Germany but looked stronger against the United States, with new boys Ricardo Costa and Almeida impressing in the opening minutes.
Yet they still came up short. A U.S. side relying on indefatigable spirit and a sharp will to win that their European opponents could not match were ultimately robbed of a deserved victory by Cristiano Ronaldo's classic cross into the path of the onrushing Varela.
The cutting beauty of Ronaldo's delivery is the only positive point in a tournament pockmarked with problems for him. Feted as the world's best player and Portugal's possible game-changer, by the end of this sweaty encounter the super-groomed Madeiran was a pastiche of arm gestures and face pulling. Much has been made of his teammates' inability to live up to his expectations, but there is an important flip side to this. One or two players seem in awe of their captain's presence, seeking him out with passes when others are better placed, meaning Ronaldo ends up fielding all sorts of difficult passes that might have been better turned into the path of a teammate. In turn, this stalls the team's progress instead of firing it.
If they are led by Bento again -- and that remains a pretty big if at this stage -- they will surely have to include some of the young talent denied their proper chance here in a formation much more flexible than the one used in Brazil.
Many teams suffer at the hands of people who tinker too much, but Bento's unwillingness to adapt has been a feature of this World Cup. They know a sad song in the country of fado, and the music ringing around the old cobbled streets of Lisbon and Porto, Coimbra and Guimaraes, is decidedly heavy on melancholy.