Portugal cling to faint hope of progress
MANAUS, Brazil -- Silvestre Varela isn't the kind of player who has "hero" written all over him. On a Portugal squad loaded with stars playing for Europe's top clubs, the 29-year-old is the quiet man; shy, polite and unobtrusive. After several years of distinguished service for FC Porto -- by whom he is valued, but rarely considered an essential -- he hopes to expand his horizons this summer with a first move abroad. It won't be Real Madrid, Manchester United or Monaco for him, of course. Besiktas are reportedly interested.
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Yet for the second finals tournament in a row, Varela breathed life (albeit very faint life) into Portugal's campaign when all seemed lost. At Euro 2012 in Lviv, Ukraine, his late strike against Denmark snatched victory after a two-goal lead had been wiped away by a Nicklas Bendtner brace. Here, in the Arena Amazonia against the United States, Varela again replaced Raul Meireles, as he had against the Danes. It precipitated a move from a 4-3-3 to more of a 4-2-4, which became even more top-heavy in the desperate closing minutes as defender Bruno Alves joined the attack.
The goal that forced the 2-2 draw was of the highest quality, with Varela drifting in from the flank (as he has often done to great effect with his club) to apply a firm, accurate header to an excellent Cristiano Ronaldo cross. Yet even if it got Portugal out of jail to a certain extent, there was no sense of joy, or even relief. Paulo Bento's men wore pained expressions as they trooped wearily down the tunnel at the end. They had avoided immediate elimination in the style of Spain or England, but any comfort came in the form of crumbs. Portugal are staring flush down the barrel.
It had been a chastening second half in particular, with Ricardo Costa's deft goal-line clearance denying Michael Bradley before Jermaine Jones did hit a spectacular and deserved equalizer. When the excellent Clint Dempsey deflected in Graham Zusi's wayward shot to give the Americans the lead, a trio of Portuguese defenders sunk to the turf in their penalty area. As the U.S. players and their formidable show of fans exalted, exploding with energy, Portugal were spent.
The contrast had been marked throughout the contest. After a rocky opening quarter-hour spell for Jurgen Klinsmann's side -- during which Nani gave Portugal the lead and the 2006 semifinalists hogged possession -- the United States finally turned it on. Bento later proclaimed himself happy with the first half, pointing out that most of the Americans' chances were from distance, with Beto rarely tested. Had Portugal netted a second on the stroke of halftime, when Nani hit the post before Tim Howard made a quite extraordinary recovery save from Eder's follow-up, things could have been very different.
Instead, the United States showed exactly why this fixture had deserved to be viewed as a banana peel for Portugal ever since the draw had been made. Their physical power increasingly told as the match wore on, with Jones, Bradley and Kyle Beckerman dominating midfield. It took some fortitude to overcome the Manaus heat. If the temperature had cooled from its daytime peak of 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit), it was still 31 (87.8) in the stadium when the match kicked off at 6 p.m. local time.
How Portugal toiled in the swelter. Fitness problems have dogged the squad since they first convened in Portugal ahead of their mini-tour of the States, and the injuries to Fabio Coentrao, Hugo Almeida and Rui Patricio in the opener against Germany complicated the task further. Despite four changes (including Costa in for the suspended Pepe) to the starting XI, Portugal lacked freshness in comparison with their opponents.
The general flatness has limited their ability to get the best out of Ronaldo. He made a decent contribution without ever really receiving the level of service he needed, a worrying sign when Bento's game plan has generally played to his strengths so well. Eight of the XI who started that Euro 2012 game against Denmark began the game in Manaus. It would have been all 11 but for injury and suspension. One sensed that part of their laconic tempo was a plan to save energy in the heat (a reasonable idea), but they were fragile. Furthermore, Helder Postiga lasted less than 20 minutes before giving way to Eder.
The United States merit plentiful credit, too. To talk about its strength alone is unfairly reductive. They passed the ball pleasingly and got it spot-on tactically. Klinsmann's employment of Dempsey (arguably the most intelligent player on the pitch) as a lone forward in the absence of Jozy Altidore worked a treat, with the Seattle man drawing out Costa and Alves to leave space behind. Fabian Johnson, perhaps the night's outstanding player, was also used well, poking hard at a left-back spot that looked vulnerable in the absence of injury victim Coentrao, as much when Andre Almeida was filling the space in the first half as when Miguel Veloso was dropped back there in the second.
The last change did at least give many World Cup fans their first close-up glimpse of William Carvalho, the 22-year-old so heavily linked with Manchester United, among others. He did bring a sense of order and technical know-how to the midfield, even if the unit as a whole never reached peak fluency. Just as with Ronaldo, William couldn't do it on his own.
It is this lack of explosiveness that is of concern going into the final group game Thursday against Ghana in Brasilia. On paper, the chance of qualification, as one American journalist said, is "not that far-fetched." A two-goal defeat for the U.S. against Germany and a three-goal win for Portugal (or vice versa, though a 3-0 Germany win and 2-0 Portugal win would result in drawing of lots) would send Portugal through. The second clause of that bargain, however, is what seems the most problematic.
Portugal are lacking -- after a long season for many of their players -- the zest of Bento's early months in charge. Just as important for the upcoming challenge, this is exactly the sort of vim that Ghana displayed when they surprised the Germans in Fortaleza. They, too, are the sort of rigourous side that could pose problems for Bento and company.
Somehow, from somewhere, Portugal need to find the power and pace to make it happen. This, rather than relying on the results of others, is what is hard to imagine at the moment.