When Portugal arrived at their Poland training camp three weeks ago, expectation was relatively low. Without a win in three games in 2012, scoring just once in the process, they faced a tough group stage against fancied Germany, not to mention the Netherlands and Denmark. Now in a third UEFA European Championship semi-final in four attempts, there is growing belief that Paulo Bento’s side can go one better than their 2004 showpiece defeat on home soil and snare a first major international trophy.
Tactics: Bento has taken stability to a new level, selecting the same starting XI in all four matches – incidentally, an identical XI to the one that played both legs of the qualifying play-off with Bosnia and Herzegovina last November. Though there will be no seventh successive game unchanged due to Hélder Postiga’s thigh injury, the 4-3-3 will remain, with a central striker – most probably Hugo Almeida – flanked by Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo. “We won’t change for anyone,” said Bento last week.
Key man: Ronaldo has met his reputation as the tournament’s highest profile player with gusto, making the difference with both goals against the Dutch and the decisive strike in the quarter-final against the Czech Republic. “He’s a very complete player,” said team-mate João Moutinho. “I don’t think I could highlight any weak points. He’s great with his head, his feet, and he’s very fast.” Ronaldo’s partnership on the left with Real Madrid CF colleague Fábio Coentrão has been hugely important for Portugal.
EURO semi-final record:
23/06/1984 France 3-2 Portugal (aet) (Marseille)
28/06/2000 France 2-1 Portugal (gg) (Brussels)
30/06/2004 Portugal 2-1 Netherlands (Lisbon)
Basecamp: The squad appear to revel in each other’s company, and their unity, happiness and dedication have shown on the training pitch at their Opalenica base. Defender Ricardo Costa, yet to play at UEFA EURO 2012, said this week that everybody has their own role. “Ronaldo-dependent?” he said. “We’re Ricardo-dependent, Eduardo-dependent and [Raul] Meireles-dependent too. Cristiano’s our standard-bearer, he’s the best player in the world and he helps us immensely, but we don’t depend just on him.”
Record in Donetsk: This is a first trip to Donetsk for Portugal, but their coach has cause for confidence having led Sporting Clube de Portugal to a 1-0 victory at FC Shakhtar Donetsk in his only previous outing in the mining stronghold. Furthermore, his side for that 2008/09 UEFA Champions League group stage fixture featured current internationals Rui Patrício, Miguel Veloso and (as a late substitute) Postiga.
Moutinho, Rolando and Silvestre Varela have also played at the Donbass Arena before, winning 2-0 with FC Porto in the UEFA Champions League group stage earlier this season. The six UEFA matches played by Portuguese teams in Donetsk have ended W3 D2 L1, with Hugo Viana appearing in that lone defeat, a 2-0 reverse with SC Braga in the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League group stage.
Room for improvement: One area that could be addressed is Portugal’s slow start to games. In each of their four UEFA EURO 2012 matches, Bento’s men have begun on the back foot. They have been good at responding to adversity, at least, recovering from a goal down against the Netherlands, yet reacted too late to rescue a point in their opening fixture with Germany. A side of Portugal’s attacking nature have the ability to be more proactive than reactive, and Bento will be keen to avoid ceding early ground to Spain.
The view from home: Optimism continues to build the further the team go. Portuguese newspaper Record insists that “Portugal aren’t scared of Spain”, while O Jogo focuses on the growing influence of Bento’s captain and talisman, Ronaldo: “Better than [Lionel] Messi and all the rest.”
Mission statement: “We have a lot of respect for them, but we have respect for ourselves too; we have a great squad and great players, and we’re confident in our way of playing.” Right-back João Pereira is not cowed by the prospect of facing the defending champions.
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