Scolari seeks Midas touch from 'golden generation'

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The golden generation, not for the first time, is looking more like fool's gold. Unless Portugal beat Spain in the greatest of all Iberian derbies tomorrow night, the host nation will be eliminated from a competition which was supposed, at last, to fulfil the expectations of a nation.

The golden generation, not for the first time, is looking more like fool's gold. Unless Portugal beat Spain in the greatest of all Iberian derbies tomorrow night, the host nation will be eliminated from a competition which was supposed, at last, to fulfil the expectations of a nation.

It was never, of course, supposed to be like this. By now, Portugal should have cemented their place in the quarter-finals, their final group fixture being nothing more than a chance to show Big Brother how far they have come.

Nothing, however, is that easy when it comes to Portuguese football. The shock defeat against Greece, the surprise of the tournament, followed by an often anxious two-goal win over 10-man Russia, has put Felipe Scolari's team in the unenviable position of having to beat their fiercest rivals for the first time in 23 years.

To suggest that Portugal's future in the competition is hanging on a knife-edge is no exaggeration. Only once before have the host nation crashed out in the group stage and never will the deafening support of the green-and-red faithful be needed more than in the Estadio Jose Alvalade tomorrow night.

Scolari, who won the World Cup with Brazil and was brought in to give the golden generation of high-class footballers one last chance of glory, is trying hard not to show his frustration. Boldly, he broke up the status quo against Russia, making four changes and dropping two of his most coveted stalwarts - Fernando Couto and the veteran playmaker Rui Costa - to the bench along with Chelsea-bound Paolo Ferreira.

The plan worked but only up to a point. Only when Rui Costa came off the bench to score a late second goal could the celebrations begin as Russia's challenge was finally extinguished. Now "Big Phil", as Scolari is known, has to decide whether to stick with the new-look side or hope the squad's renewed confidence can allow him to revert to his original thinking and hope that his squad of sparkling individuals can do it as a unit when it matters most.

One thing is for sure. If Portugal fail this time, the golden generation who won back-to-back World Youth Cups but have been unable to deliver at the highest level, will be replaced for good, a semi-final place at Euro 2000 the only reward for a squad that promised so much but which too often have flattered to deceive.

"They know this is their last chance and they've just been too nervous," Goncalo Guimaraes of Portugal's football daily, A Bola, said. "Paulo Ferreira made a terrible mistake against Greece. Normally, he's a very, very safe player. The pressure was just too great."

The meeting with Spain was always going to be a battle royal. Now it will become the focus of every fan across the Iberian peninsula, with the Spanish, European football's great under- achievers, needing a point themselves to be certain of advancing.

"We still want to win the tournament but we know that to do that we first have to beat Spain," said Scolari, who has spent 18 months preparing for the tournament but has seen his team falter in a series of friendlies and has now been forced to tinker just at the time when he should be relying on a settled side. "The supporters have been fantastic and we will try to repay them."

To do that, Portugal must try to loosen the chains of fear in their craving for silverware. Against Russia on Wednesday, the tension was almost tangible as this football-crazy nation held its breath. Nobody needs remind of the consequences if the team choke now.

The one shining light has been the form of Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, whose nimble footwork has endeared him to the crowd both times he has come on as a substitute - on Wednesday in place of Figo, who looked distinctly unhappy and later stormed through the media area.

Scolari, attempting to become the first trainer to win the World Cup and European Championship with different countries, is keeping his cards close to his chest but the pressure is growing on him to play Ronaldo from the start. Portugal are one of the best sides in the competition when they have the ball. What they lack sorely is incisiveness and precision, while using Pauleta as a lone striker gives them precious few options. Scolari may know how to win but changing the mentality of his second championship-chasing country is proving a different matter.

Or so it seems. The hard-tackling Costinha, who helped Porto win the Champions' League under Jose Mourinho, insists there is no sense of panic. "Listen, to succeed in this competition, you have to overcome a lot of great teams," he said. "We are now in good form and we are playing at home. We're not afraid of Spain. They are big, so are we. We want to do something for this country because it deserves it. Above all we have to show character because this one is going to be really hot." And he was not talking about the unseasonally baking temperatures.

PORTUGAL (probable): Ricardo; Nuno Valente, Jorge Andrade, Carvalho, Miguel; Costinha, Maniche; Simao, Deco, Figo; Pauleta.

SPAIN (probable): Casillas; Puyol, Marchena, Helguera, Raul Bravo; Etxeberria, Albelda, Baraja, Vicente; Morientes, Raul.

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