Portugal focus on defence
CAMPINAS, Brazil -- Tactically speaking, manager Paulo Bento has never been one for keeping his cards close to his chest, and so it proved again as Portugal trained at Ponte Preta's Jardim Eulina training centre on Thursday morning ahead of Sunday's crunch Group G tie against the United States. Most of the squad worked out on the right side of the pitch; stretching, running, moving the ball.
On the other side, the game plan was taking shape. A new back six got to work, with some intensity. The newly hatched Plan B could not have been clearer: Faced with the absence of the injured Fabio Coentrao and Rui Patricio (plus the suspended Pepe), the potential replacements bedded in, encouraged by Bento's assistant Joao Aroso.
So right-back Joao Pereira, defender Bruno Alves and regular midfield anchor Miguel Veloso got used to circulating possession in their own half with Ricardo Costa (Pepe's likely replacement), Andre Almeida (the youngster expected to fill in for Coentrao at left-back) and Beto, Patricio's deputy-elect.
It could be an elaborate bluff, but Bento just isn't like that. He favours consistency of selection over most other virtues and suggested it would be "our worst mistake" to make sweeping changes after the humbling loss to Germany. Speaking to the gathered Portuguese media here in Campinas this week, neither Beto nor Veloso has assumed his starting place for the game in Manaus, yet it would be a major shock if either didn't make Sunday's starting XI.
The best laid plans of this World Cup have, however, often fallen by the wayside. By Friday, the experienced Alves was sitting out training, back at the team hotel with a muscle problem. The Fenerbahce man is expected to recover to face the U.S., though Luis Neto (Alves' successor at Zenit St Petersburg) could stand in, having already held an end up to good effect in the qualifying campaign, notably in the Lisbon win over Russia. The alarm did remind, nevertheless, what a fragile line Portugal walk at present.
If Thursday's run-through underlined that Portugal's defence against Jurgen Klinsmann's side will be almost starting from scratch, it also emphasised Bento's recognition that there is little margin for error. Keeping shape and discipline, especially given the States' ebullient start, will be imperative. Even before Pepe's dismissal in the Salvador opener, a lack of defensive rigour was the main difference between the Portuguese and Germany. Bento is determined that lightning won't strike twice.
Although Portugal would have dreaded Pepe's absence pre-tournament, when his fitness was in the balance, Costa will relish the chance to show how he has grown in the past four years. He was dealt a poor hand in Portugal's last World Cup campaign, surprisingly thrown in at right-back by Carlos Queiroz against Spain in the last 16, to his obvious discomfort. Costa has plied his trade in La Liga with Valencia since, and life has not always been easy as Los Che's star has waned, but he has been a constant for them in often trying circumstances. He will get the chance to use his experience here.
Beto, who also plays in Spain, will feel that he has never been more ready to grasp his own opportunity. He has been patient throughout his career despite his clear talent, playing second fiddle to Helton at Porto between various loan spells before settling at Sevilla, where he crowned a good season with the penalty shootout saves that helped his team win the Europa League against Benfica.
Of the injured, it is clear that Portugal will miss Coentrao the most. There was a horrible, sinking feeling from the moment in Salvador when he fell to the turf in the 65th minute, holding the back of his left thigh. Player, colleagues and spectators alike knew his World Cup was over, and he flew home to Portugal on Wednesday.
Not only was the Real Madrid man arguably Portugal's most accomplished defender, but he has always worked so well with Cristiano Ronaldo. He feeds the skipper and, when Ronaldo moves inside, has the power and finesse to burst into the vacant space on the left and make the most of it.
Almeida, a right-footer, will not pose quite the same attacking threat, but he is the sort of player any manager would want in a tournament squad. At just 23, he is comfortable and composed in either full-back position or in midfield.
Of course, Portugal would love to roar back against the U.S. with a raft of goals, but logic tells us this will be a war of attrition for which Almeida will be ready. He chided himself for his error in the buildup to Germany's fourth goal in Salvador, but that was by no means decisive, and he is not the type to let it get to him.
The Benfica youngster, like Costa and Beto, is just the sort of character who is needed in a trying situation. That's exactly where Portugal finds itself. All of the trio coming in are uppish, fulsome contributors in training, and ready to bring zest and optimism to the Seleccao in a live setting.
Change isn't something that comes naturally to Bento, and predicting Portugal's XI in the past two years has been little more challenging than forecasting that night will follow day. He clearly wouldn't have wanted it to come about after such a catalogue of accidents, either.
Still, it may sharpen the focus at the moment when it's needed most. If the early, meticulous preparation and focus of the coach and his staff are anything to go by, Portugal are not willing to give up their place at the World Cup without a fight.