Portugal look to pass-master Moutinho, Ireland aim to exploit exposed Estonia full-backs

It’s Euro 2012 play-off time, with eight sides looking to book a trip to Poland and Ukraine next summer. Zonal Marking's Michael Cox uses StatsZone - available now at the iTunes App Store - to pinpoint a key player for each match…

Bosnia v Portugal – Joao MoutinhoMoutinho has improved vastly as a footballer since his controversial move from Sporting to Porto last summer, effectively replacing Raul Meireles and going on to become a key player in Porto’s unbeaten season and Europa League triumph under Andre Villas-Boas.

Moutinho rarely started games under previous Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz and was left out of the World Cup squad last summer, but current coach Paulo Bento has made the midfielder a key part of his side. Bento coached Moutinho in Sporting’s junior side, before making him a key part of the senior team in 2005/06, and their relationship continues to thrive at international level.

Moutinho is a fairly typical Portuguese midfielder, in the mould of Tiago or Maniche. He’s not a holding midfielder, nor does he break forward into the box – in fact, he’s yet to score a league goal for Porto. Instead, he plays in relatively deep positions, knocking intelligent passes from side to side.

In two Champions League games this season, away at APOEL and at home to Shakhtar, he’s completed more passes than any other player on the pitch. As the below diagrams show, he plays slightly left-of-centre, and rarely plays the ball into central positions on the edge of the box.

Czech Republic v Montenegro – Petr CechWill Petr Cech be fit to start for the Czech Republic against Montenegro? The Chelsea goalkeeper suffered a broken nose last weekend against Blackburn and is set to play with a protective mask in addition to his usual headwear, though there are doubts over whether he will be comfortable enough to play at all.

As James Horncastle points out Cech’s form has been poor this season – he’s gone from having the highest saves-to-shots ratio in the Premier League to the lowest within the space of a year.

Chelsea’s high defensive line can be partly blamed for that, but Cech’s performances have come under close scrutiny too. The above diagram shows that Arsenal’s five goals a fortnight ago came from just seven shots – all the attempts from decent positions ended in goals. Cech would point out that all five were essentially one-on-one situations, but he still seemed to be beaten very easily.

He remains a key player for club and country, however, and one area of his game that doesn’t get enough credit is his distribution. Pepe Reina, David De Gea and Victor Valdes are all famed for starting attacks, but Cech shows you don’t have to be Spanish to be a good footballing goalkeeper – away at Genk, for example, he completed 31 of 32 attempted passes.

Croatia v Turkey – Darijo SrnaWho has been the best footballer in Europe outside the five major leagues over the past five years? Darijo Srna would certainly have to be a contender. The Croatian is one of the most impressive right-backs around. He’s spent the last eight years at Shakhtar Donetsk, and at 29 may never get the opportunity to showcase his talents in a bigger league.

Captain of both club and country, Srna is an extremely attack-minded right-back, always looking to steam forward on the overlap, pushing the wide midfielder ahead of him inside, and leaving a holding midfielder to cover his right-back zone.

Look at the positions he receives passes in during the wonderful 2-2 draw with Zenit St Petersburg recently, and only a quarter of the time does he get the ball in his own half of the pitch.

Attacking full-backs are often assumed to be poor defensively, but Srna is good positionally and a decent tackler too – winning four of his five challenges during that match. He’ll need to be solid in this game, since he’s likely to be up against Atletico Madrid’s tricky left winger Arda Turan.

Estonia v Ireland – Aiden McGeady and Damien DuffGiovanni Trapattoni uses a basic 4-4-2 formation with Ireland – a solid back four, Glen Whelan and Keith Andrews scrapping in front of the back four, Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady attacking down the flanks, and Robbie Keane off Kevin Doyle upfront, though the suspended Doyle will be replaced by Jon Walters or Simon Cox.

Whelan and Andrews are sometimes left stranded in front of the back four, and opponents with three central midfielders can often play around them in that zone – therefore, don’t expect either to join up with the attack much, meaning Duff and McGeady’s wing play becomes very important.

Both can take on and beat opponents, but neither are particularly good at crossing the ball. Duff attempted 18 crosses without finding a teammate earlier in this season against Blackburn, while McGeady can also be wasteful in good positions, as his Champions League performance against Marseille last season shows. Estonia can leave their full-backs a little exposed and these two should get opportunities to put in good balls – the key for Ireland is whether Duff and McGeady can deliver.

Stats Zone, the app from FourFourTwo powered by data from Opta, is available now at the iTunes App Store