Portugal cling to their slim hopes
BRASILIA, Brazil -- With just three days separating Portugal's final two group games in the World Cup, you might think there wasn't much time for reflection. You would be wrong. The mood in the camp since the acutely underwhelming performance and result against United States on Sunday has been one of self-assessment and contrition.
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Right-back Joao Pereira (actually one of the side's better performers to date) was first up on Monday, the afternoon after the squad arrived back at their Campinas training base from Manaus. He didn't want to blame the intense heat in which both opening group games were played or even the plague of injuries that have dogged manager Paulo Bento's squad since they began preparing for the tournament and that have escalated since.
Portugal's struggles, the Valencia defender said, were simply down to the team having "just made too many mistakes."
Since then, Ricardo Costa and Pepe -- either of whom Bento will choose to partner Bruno Alves in central defence against Ghana in Brasilia on Thursday -- and the coach have spoken of doing Portugal's name proud. They know that qualification into the knockout round is out of their hands, with the ideal being Germany giving the U.S. a hiding while Portugal hold up their end of the bargain at the Estadio Nacional. Yet the performances to date in Group G have been tame enough that in one sense a win -- and hopefully, from a Portuguese perspective, a convincing one -- is important in the team's regaining a sense of self.
On Tuesday, an impromptu news conference was held at Ponte Preta's Jardim Eulina training centre, with Portuguese FA vice president Humberto Coelho and team doctor Henrique Jones fielding questions. The open floor continued for well over an hour as Portuguese journalists poked repeatedly, emptying all their frustrations on everything from the rash of hamstring injuries to the choice of location for the training camp.
Coelho defended Portugal's choices, and significantly, he defended Bento, who reiterated in Wednesday's pregame news conference at the Estadio Nacional that he has no plans to resign. Not that Bento has attempted to duck criticism or responsibility, presenting himself as the bottom line, as he has done throughout the tournament. When one journalist asked before the opener against Germany about the pressure on Cristiano Ronaldo, Bento replied there was only one person on whom all the responsibility should be focussed: himself.
He is courageous to do this on the eve of a game in which Portugal will have to augment their recent performance by several levels to make the result between the group's current top two, in Recife, even matter. It might be that he feels that fortune favours the brave. It certainly did in the early days of Bento's reign, when he took the helm in October 2010 after Queiroz's suspension and eventual dismissal.
Portugal often have thrived in unpromising situations since -- that whole qualifying campaign, the late win over Denmark at Euro 2012, the qualifying playoff win over Sweden this time around. That most satisfying of victories in Stockholm might be a useful template for this match. Ghana, as Bento pointed out, have to go for it as well. In such a situation, Portugal are surely perfectly set up to make the most of Ronaldo's qualities, displayed for club and country alike.
Essentially playing on the break might seem counterintuitive given the situation and would take considerable nerve, but it might be the way to go.
The good news is that the captain is, says Dr. Jones, "clinically ready to compete." The pace and the touch are certainly there, as showed while the match progressed in Manaus, with Ronaldo's superb assist for Silvestre Varela's last-ditch leveller. It has even been suggested in some quarters of the Portuguese media that he might be employed as a central striker, with Hugo Almeida and Helder Postiga both injured.
Ronaldo and Braga's Eder didn't hit it off brilliantly against the States, so this could be Bento's call. Then again, it might be that Portugal use the 4-4-2 shape in which they finished against the U.S., as they chase a result.
Either way, the feeling is that a win is essential, come what may in Recife. It wouldn't only provide succour to the people back home ("we have a country to honour," as Pereira put it on Monday) but would be some sort of recompense to Brazilians, who have really responded to Portugal since their arrival.
The welcome afforded to the Seleccao (and to Ronaldo in particular, of course) has been very special, and several players have mentioned it. If the dream Brazil vs. Portugal final (suggested by any number of people you speak to in the street in recent weeks) is unlikely, some sort of statement would be welcome.
Ghana's hopes of qualifying, together with their power and the encouragement from that fine display against Germany, makes them dangerous opponents. Yet Portugal under Bento have always been best when fighting fire with fire. So it's back to the old school in Brasilia, whether it's to grant an unlikely stay of execution or to re-energise for the future.