Euro 2012 preview: Portugal
Perennial underachievers they may be, but Portugal do still possess perhaps Europe's finest player. Ben Lyttleton assesses A SelecÃÂ§ÃÂ£o's chances in Poland and Ukraine
Nani, Meireles, Veloso and co. celebrate being allowed to take free-kicks
The squad may look similar, but the mood with Paulo Bento in charge of Portugal is very different. Bento, the former Sporting Lisbon boss, replaced Carlos Queiroz as national team coach after the teamÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂ¨first qualifier, a 4-4 draw with Cyprus, was followed by a 1-0 loss to Norway. Those dropped points almost cost them dear but Ã¢ÂÂ¨it was actually losing their last qualifier, Ã¢ÂÂ¨2-1 away to group winners Denmark, that forced Portugal into a play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
And it was in that game, specifically the second leg after a 0-0 away draw, that we Ã¢ÂÂ¨saw BentoÃ¢ÂÂs team at its best. If one moment summed up his reign, it would not be the sublime long-range strike from Nani, the solo dribble and finish from Cristiano Ronaldo, nor the two strikes from Helder Postiga that proved his credentials as more dangerous for country than club (now Zaragoza); no, it would be the free-kick from which Miguel Veloso scored PortugalÃ¢ÂÂs last goal in the 6-2 win. The reason? Because under Bento, anyone can take the Ã¢ÂÂ¨free-kicks Ã¢ÂÂ not just Ronaldo (who had actually scored one earlier in the game).
It was a different story under Queiroz. Ã¢ÂÂ¨The coach who helped Manchester United Ã¢ÂÂ¨sign Ronaldo stifled the winger by fielding Ã¢ÂÂ¨a defensive side and then asking too much Ã¢ÂÂ¨of his captain. The players resented Queiroz and, after a while, Ronaldo did too. Bento changed things: he moved Ronaldo from centre-forward back to his preferred position on the wing, giving him licence to come inside; he moved Pepe from holding midfielder back to centre-back; and he kept the three-man midfield but this time with Veloso, a composed passer, the deepest midfielder, restoring Ã¢ÂÂ¨Joao Moutinho as the box-to-box runner Ã¢ÂÂ¨with Raul Meireles making up the trio.
Ronaldo and Bento were team-mates at Sporting, and the obvious bond between Ã¢ÂÂ¨them was apparent when the coach faced Ã¢ÂÂ¨his biggest test: banning Ricardo Carvalho Ã¢ÂÂ¨from the team after the Real Madrid defender was benched for Pepe and Bruno Alves to Ã¢ÂÂ¨start against Cyprus in September. Carvalho left the teamÃ¢ÂÂs camp in a strop and Bento called him a Ã¢ÂÂdeserterÃ¢ÂÂ. Carvalho hit back Ã¢ÂÂ¨and it was getting ugly until Ronaldo intervened, siding with the young coach.
Carvalho, who on this seasonÃ¢ÂÂs form Ã¢ÂÂ¨probably doesnÃ¢ÂÂt deserve to start anyway, Ã¢ÂÂ¨is not the only notable absentee; in fact, Ã¢ÂÂ¨Jose Bosingwa Ã¢ÂÂ who fell out with Bento Ã¢ÂÂ¨after complaining about being named as Ã¢ÂÂ¨a substitute against Argentina (Bento accused him of faking injuries to get out of friendlies) Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ could be a bigger loss. His replacement Ã¢ÂÂ¨at right-back, Joao Pereira, is shorter and Ã¢ÂÂ¨less dynamic than the Chelsea man.
Bento also has a wild card up his sleeve, Ã¢ÂÂ¨the type of player Portugal have lacked Ã¢ÂÂ¨for generations, because it looks as if Ã¢ÂÂ¨a bona fide top-class centre-forward may Ã¢ÂÂ¨be emerging. His name is Nelson Oliveira and the clamour for his inclusion Ã¢ÂÂ¨is growing. He is only 20 and has played just a handful of games Ã¢ÂÂ¨for Benfica this season, but scored Ã¢ÂÂ¨10 minutes into his Champions League debut in a win over Zenit St Petersburg. He may not dislodge Postiga, but he gives Portugal a new scoring option from the bench.
Lesson from qualifying
The Sporting connection works: Bento played with Ronaldo, and coached Rui Patricio, Nani, Veloso and Moutinho at the Lisbon club. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Bento released the pressure the players Ã¢ÂÂ¨were under during QueirozÃ¢ÂÂs reign, and they are enjoying representing Portugal again.
Bento's past with many of his squad will at least save him learning new names
The mood in the camp is positive, and despite the bust-ups with Carvalho and Bosingwa, Bento is a popular figure. Beating Spain 4-0 in a friendly also helped. Keeper Rui Patricio, another Sporting player, is developing well, and Ronaldo and Nani (right) on either side of Postiga works.
There are concerns about Pereira Ã¢ÂÂ¨at right-back, and while the midfield Ã¢ÂÂ¨is solid and compact, it lacks a quality number 10, with Portugal never Ã¢ÂÂ¨having properly replaced the creative talisman of the noughties, Deco.
Did you knowÃ¢ÂÂ¦?
When Carvalho stormed out of the Portugal camp after he was benched for the game against Cyprus last September, he drove Ã¢ÂÂ¨away in Fabio CoentraoÃ¢ÂÂs car. Hopefully he asked for his team-mateÃ¢ÂÂs permission first.
Sergio Krithinas, Football Editor, O Jogo
Ã¢ÂÂA recent survey in O Jogo found that Bento has an 84 per cent approval rating among the fans, which shows how much things have changed from the miserable Queiroz era. The players like being involved now, which makes a big difference. The fact that Portugal are in a tough group is not seen as a problem; in fact it reminds us of Euro 2000, when we got Ã¢ÂÂ¨out of a group that featured England, Romania and Germany.Ã¢ÂÂ
Too reliant on Ronaldo. Early exit.
Ronaldo certainly won't be unwilling to be Portugal's focal point
Portugal squeezed through the qualifying round via the play-offs and will now be looking to their talisman for guidance. With the huge responsibility of being both creator and Ã¢ÂÂ¨goalscorer, Ronaldo simply must Ã¢ÂÂ¨be on form in order for Portugal to progress from their group of death. Hopefully there will be a little less winking and a little more delicate dinking from EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs best player.
At the age of 42, Bento is not only the youngest manager at the Euros but also the least experienced. He only has seven years of high-level management to his name (two of them with Portugal), but the former Sporting Lisbon manager was reportedly earmarked to join Ã¢ÂÂ¨Sir Alex Ferguson Ã¢ÂÂ¨as assistant back Ã¢ÂÂ¨in 2008 when Carlos Queiroz Ã¢ÂÂ¨left for Real Madrid.
How they play
Portugal can be absolutely brilliant or equally frustrating, summed up by some lacklustre qualifying performances. The centre of midfield looks strong, and no defence would like to face Ronaldo and Nani cutting in from the flanks. Postiga looks set to play through the middle, although donÃ¢ÂÂt be surprised to see Nelson Oliveira get his chance upfront if the former Spurs man doesnÃ¢ÂÂt hit the ground running.
June 9, Germany (Lviv, 7.45pm)
June 13, Denmark (Lviv, 5pm)
June 17, Holland (Kharkiv, 7.45pm)
Portugal are 14/1 to win the tournament, while Cristiano Ronaldo to finish as top scorer with Portugal winning the tournament is 25/1.
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FOURFOURTWO'S EURO 2012 PREVIEWS
Grp A: Poland Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Russia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Greece Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Czech Republic
Grp B: Netherlands Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Germany Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Portugal Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Denmark
Grp C: Spain Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Italy Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Croatia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Republic of Ireland
Grp D: Ukraine Ã¢ÂÂ¢ England Ã¢ÂÂ¢ France Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Sweden
...and there's more: try Back of the Net's satirical previews