Misfiring Portugal in urgent need of Cristiano Ronaldo's fireworks against Denmark
Captain must rediscover his hot streak against Denmark to avoid elimination
Wednesday 13 June 2012
After a creditable but ultimately fruitless performance in their opening match of Euro 2012 against Germany, the requirement for Portugal is simple when they face Denmark in Lviv. A win is imperative, "so we'll only need to depend on ourselves," as Nani put it earlier this week.
What is less simple is working out where the goals to fashion this victory will come from. Portugal have not only failed to win in four games so far in 2012, they have only scored once in doing so – an individual effort by Nani in a recent home defeat by Turkey.
It is a perplexing situation, especially considering the freedom with which Portugal have generally played since Paulo Bento took over in October 2010 after Carlos Queiroz's ragged reign. Real brio had been required to rectify a desperate situation in one of the short qualifying groups. Subsequently, Portugal scored 37 times in Bento's first 13 games, including a 6-2 play-off thrashing of Bosnia-Herzegovina to clinch a place at this summer's tournament, a 4-0 beating of Spain and a resounding 3-1 win over today's opponents, Denmark, on Bento's debut as Portugal coach.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portugal captain, was one of the major beneficiaries of the Bento bump. The Real Madrid man had endured a miserable spell under Queiroz, scoring just twice in two years – a penalty in a friendly against Finland and another against North Korea in the 2010 World Cup – but sparked immediately under Bento, hitting nine in the new coach's first 10 competitive matches.
Ronaldo has been an ebullient presence at Portugal's training base in Opalenica, near Poznan, speeding around with his customary feverish commitment. He is a far happier man with the national team now than the one who stalked off the pitch, long-faced, after elimination by Spain in Cape Town two years back. He has known Bento for more than a decade, when the coach was a senior pro at Sporting Lisbon and Ronaldo was a youth player. Bento is straightforward and forthright – qualities that Ronaldo respects – and immediately positioned his skipper in his preferred position on the left side after taking over.
So where were the fireworks against Germany? There is little doubt that Portugal's caution left Ronaldo a little marginalised. "We had to respect Germany – they're one of the best teams in the world," insisted midfielder Miguel Veloso, like Ronaldo and Nani a product of the legendary Sporting academy. "Defending is an important part of the game."
If Ronaldo's performance was encouraging rather than explosive, he was far from the isolated figure he had been under Queiroz, and he almost set up a late equaliser for Nani. Ronaldo hasn't, of course, become any more accepting of defeat, and was criticised in some sections of the Portuguese media for not running over to greet the travelling fans after the final whistle. Nani stood up for his team-mate, claiming Ronaldo had rushed off to see the physiotherapist after feeling "a small back pain," though Nani's subsequent comments were more telling: "Everybody reacts differently [to defeat]. He's an excellent captain."
Many in Portugal believe the real problem is in the centre, and would like Helder Postiga replaced by Nelson Oliveira after the latter's excellent cameo against Germany. "I'm used to the critics by now," the former Tottenham striker, Postiga, said yesterday. He also has the backing of Bento, who confirmed "Helder will play". Postiga can point to an international goalscoring record comparable to that of Wayne Rooney. Yet, ultimately, it will come down to which is the better foil for Ronaldo, and Postiga is under pressure to prove it is him.
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