Portugal need to regroup and not panic
Forget the absence of Marco Reus and (hopefully less permanently in terms of this competition) Bastian Schweinsteiger. Germany's principal weakness seemed to leap off the teamsheet and stare you in the face as soon as you saw the starting lineups. Even more significantly than the fact that the defence aligned by Joachim Loew had only started once together before -- against Armenia -- was that the four players comprising it were all, by trade, centre-backs. It was hard to escape shades of Diego Maradona four years ago.
Against a nation that produces wingers at a similar rate to that at which Pharrell Williams knocks out hits, one had to fear for Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Howedes. Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo had boldly declared his fitness in the pre-match press conference, despite a difficult end to his club campaign with Real Madrid, while on the opposite side Nani lined up fresh and keen to impress after a quiet season at Manchester United.
It was a false alarm. Whether by design or circumstance, Loew's choices worked to a tee. If Howedes stuck to his task well against the United man, who looked lively in the early stages here in Salvador, then Boateng was absolutely outstanding.
Employing a centre-back of his athleticism in the wide position was just the ticket, as Ronaldo is -- of course -- no orthodox winger. Boateng's power and strength went a long way toward negating Portugal's major threat, though Germany's midfield did sterling work in cutting the supply line at the source. Toni Kroos and Mario Gotze may be celebrated for their fluency on the ball but their tackling and closing of space made a big contribution to deciding the match's destiny.
Once Germany hit the front, Portugal had little answer. The two teams had plenty in common in terms of their buildups being disrupted by injuries -- a common hazard at the end of a demanding club season -- but the fortitude of Loew's side was eventually far greater.
Luck, it must be said, was firmly stacked against Portugal. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, from the penalty given against Joao Pereira for a marginal foul on Gotze, through the injuries to Hugo Almeida and Fabio Coentrao, all the way to Pepe's rush of blood to the head.
There are few situations in which a team would have been less enthused to close out the final 53 minutes with 10 men. Everywhere you looked, players on both sides were melting in the Bahia heat. Even the impeccably turned-out Ronaldo started to feel his hair hang over his forehead. It was a two-shower day, for sure, and Pepe's indiscretion left Paulo Bento's men facing a mountain they were never going to be able to climb.
Much will be made of Portugal's below-par defending, and they could have been a goal down earlier had Sami Khedira punished Rui Patricio's scuffed clearance. Yet Germany's defending wasn't much better. It's easy to forget Hugo Almeida's mishit shot when he was afforded space, or the pair of free headers that Eder was unable to get on target after he later replaced the injured Besiktas striker. The lack of any sort of rub of the green was clear when Howedes escaped sanction for his late chop on Eder in the penalty box, much to Portugal's incredulity. As Loew and hat-trick hero Thomas Muller both said postgame, Germany "took our chances."
The main challenges for Portugal now are to put the result into perspective and not to panic. In a sense, the situation is the same as in Euro 2012; losing the first game to Germany (albeit by a heavier margin) means needing to beat two tough opponents to progress. That campaign in Poland and Ukraine is a good template for the squad -- Joao Moutinho spoke this week about "preserving the spirit" from the summer of two years back -- and should be held on to as such, with the opening week in Brazil being one of great positivity before this result. It is easy to forget that Portugal were in far scratchier form coming into the last Euro than this.
Changes are inevitable. Pepe, for one, must be replaced while banned, and Ricardo Costa's emergence as an important figure for Valencia makes him better prepared to step in than ever before. Vierinha, a lively presence in training who has just returned to fitness after injury, will surely be a candidate to come in against the U.S. on Sunday night in Manaus (6 p.m. ET) and give pep to the attack. A capable locum for Ronaldo in the past, he would combine well with the skipper.
So it's down but not out, then. It will take a big effort to qualify for the last 16 but the gauntlet is laid. Should Portugal manage to progress, they face a highly attractive set of fixtures in the latter stages. Second place in the group would equal a return to Salvador -- probably against Belgium -- before a possible quarterfinal match with Argentina. There is no lack of motivation in the camp, and the prospect of this will surely sharpen it, if that were needed.
Will Portugal, like Gilberto Gil, be back in Bahia for the last 16? For now, it's the very best they can hope for.