Preparations for Germany now Portugal's focus
Portugal head coach Paulo Bento could afford a wide smile on Tuesday night as all his World Cup pieces began to fall nicely into place before the crucial opening match with Germany in Salvador on 16th June. If questions were being asked after the first two warm-up games, drawn feebly with Greece and won somewhat luckily against Mexico, the sweeping symphony of a 5-1 rout of the Republic of Ireland in New Jersey served to answer many of those tricky questions remaining on the lips of journalists and supporters alike.
Here was a team that resembled a team, with most of its star players back, playing the way they are expected to play and producing immediate improved results. Instead of staring at a row of uninspiring friendly fixtures that look as lacklustre as some supporters of the national team may have been tempted to feel, one can see an ascending line of performance and achievement: 0-0, 1-0, 5-1; injuries healing rapidly; star performers returning and others hitting hot streaks of good form.
This game was far more than an exercise in confidence-building, however important that may be. Bento's decision to place the giant and somewhat ungainly Hugo Almeida in the central attacking role paid immediate dividends with a two-goal haul. Almeida has come under heavy criticism from press and supporters alike, but there is no doubt that with fully functioning wingers to serve him properly, the big Besiktas centre-forward can be a proper handful.
The middle three of William Carvalho, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho hinted at things to come, with Miguel Veloso relegated to a watching brief after failing to ignite the middle of the park, where Portugal will badly need artistry to compete with the big boys at this World Cup.
The recalled Cristiano Ronaldo, the team's obvious and essential talisman, was back too after days of rumour and conjecture that had the Portuguese nation reaching a froth of anxiety about their captain's fitness. Eased back into action against Ireland, Ronaldo's presence gave the team an immediately better balanced appearance and allowed it to carry a threat that had only surfaced sporadically in the matches with Greece and Mexico.
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Perhaps the biggest good news story of them all, however, is the surprise return to form of winger Nani, after a subpar season at Old Trafford. Discarded and overlooked by David Moyes, Nani's inclusion in the Portugal squad was questioned by some, but Bento has his favourites and the ex-Sporting flyer can count himself lucky to be able to include himself among them. His season of inactivity could have gone one of two ways: a drained and disheartened appearance at the World Cup squad training camp in Obidos, or a talented player with energy to spare after a period of long inactivity.
That fans have witnessed a near-resurrection of Nani's impish wing skills bodes well for Portugal's immediate prospects. His close control of long diagonal balls, confident advances and delicate final passes into the middle for Portugal's last two goals, scored respectively by the lively Vieirinha and Fabio Coentrao, was the work of a man who has seen an entire season pass him by and is now putting all that excess energy to very good use.
Although Pepe was still absent from a back line given only sporadic trouble by the Republic of Ireland's attackers, the performances of Luis Neto and Ruben Amorim further confirmed to Bento that the squad system is working well, that morale is on the rise and that the players boarding the flight to Brazil -- where 200 enthusiastic fans were waiting to welcome them to Campinas -- do so with every chance of playing a full and meaningful role in this 2014 World Cup finals tournament.
As they boarded their flight, the coach reiterated the fact that the preparations had now been completed in positive style and that the initial goal of being relaxed and ready for the first game against the Germans was now the main priority. With the tournament about to kick off, Bento's players have five more days to dot the i's and cross the t's before embarking on what will surely be the toughest of their three group games. They do so buoyed by improving results, improving health and a growing belief that they can have a say in the eventual destination of this World Cup. The 10,000 fans expected to cram into the training ground at Campinas to see Portugal's first training session will not deter Bento from doing his job. "I find it normal that so many want to see us and back us, given the proximity of relations between Brazil and Portugal," he said. "If we are going to play in Brazil, then we will take some moments to share the experience with the locals."
The smiles and the handshakes, the confident steps and the waves of acknowledgement show that it only takes a short time to pull the strings together and get everything in order if everyone is willing. In Bento's close-knit, long-standing squad, there will certainly be no lack of team spirit once the first whistle blows.