Portugal’s campaign back on track

There’s hardly a better way to describe football than that chosen by former Vitória Guimarães president Pimenta Machado; “What today is deemed as truth, tomorrow will be hold as a lie”.

Having claimed just a single point in their first two Euro 2012 qualifying matches against Cyprus and Norway, Portugal’s mainstream media despaired and went as far as dismissing the national team’s chances of qualifying altogether.

Kneejerk reactions also extended to federation supremo Gilberto Madaíl, who went to Madrid for the ‘Hail Mary pass’. Mourinho was not available though, and it was Paulo Bento who emerged as the knight in shining armour that would lift the spirits of a pessimistic footballing nation.

And after defeating Denmark and Iceland with back-to-back 3-1 successes, Portugal currently sit in second place with seven points in their group - a good position to push on for an automatic qualifying spot.

The main question that should be posed here is ‘What changed?m’. Well, it was certainly more than just the manager.

The national team seemed a different side with more heart and team spirit than before. They took the game by the scruff of the neck in a way not seen of a Portugal side in a good few years, and were able to reap the benefits of this approach.

Contrary to the pre-match predictions, Bento named Joao Moutinho in the starting XI against Denmark, and he must be proud of that decision. The pint-sized midfielder, who has been a revelation at FC Porto, never stopped running and marshalled the midfield like an experienced campaigner.

Paulo Bento also moved Pepe back into the defence, something Queiroz for some reason had  refused to do. Not only is the Real Madrid player more comfortable at centre-back, but the team will also benefit from his newly-forged partnership with Ricardo Carvalho at club level.

Raul Meireles played deeper as a holding midfielder and he was one of the more impressive performers in both matches, scoring a goal against Iceland and combining well with Moutinho.

The other element in the revamped engine room, Carlos Martins, didn’t quite play at the level he has been playing to with Benfica of late, but the fact he started both matches will boost his confidence and further improve his relationship with Bento.

Against Denmark, the Selecção started anxiously, presumably at least partly because of the immense pressure. That is why the ever-unfazed Danes were gladly countering Portugal’s offensive soirees.

The match really came to life in the 29th minute, when Nani scored after a low cross from Cristiano Ronaldo. The home crowd at Estádio do Dragão barely had time to celebrate as one minute later the Manchester United winger intercepted a pass and unleashed a powerful strike that Thomas Sorensen was unable to stop.

With a 2-0 lead, the Selecção was able to break from the strap jacket and started creating goalscoring opportunities for fun. Squandering many clear-cut chances, Denmark would get a lifeline 10 minutes from time when Ricardo Carvalho put the ball into his own net from a corner.

The Scandinavians sent a chill down Portuguese spines as Poulsen’s goal was ruled out  – correctly it must be said - for offside, but man-of-the-match Nani would superbly assist Ronaldo in the 85th minute for the team’s third goal to seal the win after a solid team performance.

Buoyed by the home success against Denmark, Portugal went to Reykjavik confident on a good result and they could hardly have wished for a better start. Just three minutes into the match, Carlos Martins was fouled and from the subsequent free-kick Ronaldo hit his trademark Tomahawk to give the Portuguese an early lead. The Icelanders however make up for their lack of technical brilliance with sheer resilience, and levelled when Eduardo botched a save from Heidar Helguson’s tame header.

Raul Meireles hit a must-see screamer from 30 yards in the 27th minute and from that moment on it never seemed that victory would slip away from Portugal’s hands. Hélder Postiga would put an end to any lingering doubt regarding the result when he pounced after a goalkeeping error, but in all honesty, this match was a snoozefest for large periods.

In the end, Portugal got maximum points from two vital matches, but this isn‘t time to get carried away - this wouldn’t be the first time a new manager has taken over, overseen a temporary upsurge in fortunes before seeing his team gradually hit the skids again.

But while there are still questions that need to be answered, especially regarding the long-term sustainability of the squad, Bento seems to be on the right track. Only time will tell if he’ll be a successful manager but for now there are two things the Portugeezer particularly likes in him: he’s not afraid to bring young players and he seems to have the respect of his players.

Will that be enough?

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