Scolari urged to dare - and risk Ronaldo

Portugal v Spain: Time for Figo, Pauleta and Rui Costa to deliver as the final comes early for old golden generation
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Wednesday evening's eclipse of Russia invoked the predict-able horn-blasting within the capital. But it was a muted serenading of their team by Portuguese standards. The collective heart wasn't truly in it.

Wednesday evening's eclipse of Russia invoked the predict-able horn-blasting within the capital. But it was a muted serenading of their team by Portuguese standards. The collective heart wasn't truly in it.

Question the stoical folk of Lisbon about Portugal's chances, and they offer you just a faint smile and a dismissive shrug. Translated, their disposition reads: we have been here too many times before to start proffering any outlandish claims.

In reality, they don't expect too much, even as hosts, an honour which can as easily distance a nation from its team as bind the two together. At the Estadio da Luz, a lone-goal lead for much of the contest persuaded them from venting their frustration at alaboured display.

But only just. This is the final act in the dissolution of the so-called golden generation, who emerged from the World Youth Cup-winning teams of 1989 and 1991. Rui Costa didn't start on Wednesday; Fernando Couto didn't even play. In both games thus far, Luis Figo has been exasperating as much as exhilarating, and the mighty chorus of approval when he was substituted was as much for the appearance of his replacement, Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, in the likes of whom the team's future prosperity is embodied, as appreciation of the Portugal talisman's contribution.

Like its close cousin Brazil, Portugal breeds prodigious talent. Its players grace club sides worldwide. Unlike Brazil, it appears incapable of assimilating them into an international side. Luiz Felipe Scolari has charge of a team in transition, and even the victory against Russia didn't produce conclusive evidence that he has organised a sufficiently potent blend to secure the championship.

Yet this city will ignore such considerations for 24 hours. Tonight's Iberian Pen-insular dust-up here at the Estadio Jose Alvalade is all that excites them. Never mind further ambition. "It is our final," enthused the owner of our preferred hostelry. He was evidently familiar with British manager-speak.

Portugal last beat Spain in 1981, in Porto. To qualify for a probable quarter-final against France or England, they need to break a habit of five successive draws against the old enemy. Raul, Fernando Morientes and Juan Carlos Valeron are among names which are sufficient to convince Portugal supporters that they won't.

Much will depend on what face the enigmatic midfielder Deco presents. Without him initially against Greece, Portugal were artless. They improved significantly when he replaced Rui Costa. Against Russia, he started and created the opening goal with an incisive ball for Maniche. However, the 26-year-old, whose registration is reportedly in transit to Chelsea, where he would join the former Porto coach Jose Mourinho and Portugal right-back Paulo Ferreira, suffers from the impetuosity of a Wayne Rooney. Spain will be all too aware of that flaw.

It is the occasion, too, for the Azores-born striker Pauleta to announce himself to the tournament. The Paris St-Germain player, who is deployed as a lone striker and who has scored 29 goals for Portugal in 56 appearances, still awaits his first here. "We have recovered from the initial blow [against Greece]," he says. "Now we are better prepared and we face Spain with more possibilities than before. The atmosphere has changed - we have regained the support of the fans and now we cannot fail."

He adds: "Sunday's game is like a final that none of us wanted. It would have been ideal if Spain and Portugal had already gone through to the next round. We expected to arrive at this game with qualification already achieved, but Greece have taken advan-tage of their opportunities and appear favourites to go through."

Scolari appears reluctant to start with Ronaldo, who scored against Greece and fashioned his team's second against Russia. Like Rooney, he is still a teenager, but that should not deter the Portugal coach from utilising his wizardry from the beginning.

Ronaldo's former coach at Sporting Lisbon, Laszlo Boloni, insists: "It's true that Cristiano is sometimes over the top with his step-overs, but the pass [to Rui Costa] for the second goal [against Russia] was that of a great player. He is assured of a future as a great player. I hope he takes his success with the same modesty as Eusebio and Figo, because that will make the Portuguese happy."

For the moment, happiness is straightforward: a triumph against the nation which, since the 14th century, when Portugal gained its independence, has been the dominant power of the peninsular. "The absolute certainty is that on Sunday they [the Portuguese supporters] are going to suffer a lot, they are going to cry and laugh a lot, and at the end of the game we'll all be celebrating, God willing," reflected their goalkeeper, Ricardo.

Failure to do so would create a pariah of Scolari, whose perceived approach as that of a man who places team discipline before individual flair has already been condemned. Ultimately, success will depend on the Brazilian-born coach's ability to harness some distinguished performers of varying ages and attributes into an effective whole. "Me, I prefer to play ugly and win," is the mantra of the moustachioed one, who describes himself as "a good organiser, not too scientific, and a friend to my players".

But, essentially, he demands that his élite, Figo, Rui Costa (if selected) and Deco, reproduce the "competitiveness" of their club form. Tonight, he will not be forgiven if they fail.