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Portugal Euro 2012: What we’ve learned from the group stages

With all the games in Group B completed, and the quarter-finals looming for Portugal, it’s time to reflect on what we’ve learned about the Selecção from their opening three matches of Euro 2012.

What we learned from Portugal v Germany:

  1. One of Portugal’s biggest concerns going into the tournament was a perceived defensive weakness. But the centre-back partnership of Pepe and Alves barely put a foot wrong all night. Portugal’s deep-lying midfielder Miguel Velsoso provided excellent screening in front of the back four, as the highly fancied Germans were kept to a minimum of chances. Apart from the goal, Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patricio had just one save to make all match.
  2. Ex Benfica and current Real Madrid left-back Fabio Coentrao was many people’s pick as the best left-back at the 2010 World Cup. Judging by tonight’s man-of-the-match performance he is determined to earn a similar distinction at Euro 2012. Impeccable in his defensive duties, Coentrao offered exhilarating support to the attack with a series of marauding runs that gave Germany problems all night.
  3. Portugal fans are used to watching their team carve out plenty of chances with some silky smooth attacking and gorgeous skills – and then wasting them. While Portugal were not at their most fluent against Germany, the chances that did fall their way were spurned in all too predictable fashion. Pepe was unlucky to hit the underside of the crossbar, Nani couldn’t direct a presentable opportunity past a defender’s back, while Varela’s fluffed chance late on was simply criminal.
  4. In close connection with no. 4 is the fact that Portugal have struggled to produce a top-class striker to match the brilliance of their wingers. Benfica youngster Nelson Oliveira looked more dangerous in his 20-minute cameo than starting striker Helder Postiga had in the previous 70 minutes. Oliveira is just 20 years old and only plays sporadically for Benfica, but he looks the best of a modest bunch and has the potential to become something Portugal have been desperately seeking for years – something resembling a high-quality striker.
  5. It is a simple quality that any successful team requires, but which has been conspicuous by its absence on more than several occasions throughout the history of the Seleccao. Portugal are often a collection of superbly talented individuals rather than a cohesive team. The spirit Portugal showed in the final 15 minutes when chasing the result bodes well as regards the unity of the side.

What we learned from the Denmark match:

  1. Defensive fragility. After looking rock solid for the most part against Germany, pre-tournament worries about Portugal’s defensive frailties resurfaced yesterday. The fact that Denmark’s equaliser was all too predictable proves one thing. Portugal’s best chance of making progress in this tournament is to outscore their opponents and not to shut them out.
  2. Cristiano Ronaldo still can’t deliver foe Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo missed two big chances to give Portugal some breathing room in this game, and that will raise some question marks about his mentality on the international level. Ronaldo seemed very anxious in two situations where he should have easily scored, as he wasn’t under too much pressure and was one-on-one with the keeper both times. As the captain and the team’s talisman, Ronaldo really needs to step up his game for his team to have any luck.
  3. Portugal are not a one-man team. Cristiano Ronaldo’s teammates spared him from some criticism with their performances in this game. Players like Nani, Pepe, Helder Postiga and Miguel Veloso stepped up for the Portuguese, but it’s the substitute Varela who really stole the show. If the rest of Portugal’s players can continue to play like this and Ronaldo steps up his game, Portugal will be tough to match.
  4. Nani steps out of Ronaldo’s shadow. While the focus was on Ronaldo’s below-par performance, Nani on the other wing was Portugal’s biggest attacking threat. His sublime skills looked to have the beating of his marker every time, and his incisive passing, was used to devastating effect. Set up Postiga’s goal on a plate and an even easier chance for Ronaldo with pin perfect passes.
  5. Miguel Veloso stepping up. Tipped for a glittering future when he burst onto the scene at Sporting as a teenager, Miguel Veloso’s career has never quite taken off. He was not even a regular starter for struggling Italian side Genoa last season. Veloso has so far put in two excellent performances at Euro 2012, largely nullifying first Mesut Ozil, then Christian Eriksen, as well as instigating many of Portugal’s attacks with his accurate first-time passing. His talents deserve a bigger stage at club level and he may just be playing his way to a lucrative move.
  6. Paulo Bento was right to trust Postiga. Helder Postiga doubled Portugal’s lead in the first half with a very clinical finish. Paulo Bento’s selection of the Real Zaragoza forward has been criticized time and again, but he was justified when the forward netted his goal. Postiga’s main competition comes in the form of youngster Nelson Oliveira, who has shown some good touches in both his games but has yet to do the one thing Portugal really needs: score. Postiga will have to keep it up as the tournament continues in order to keep his spot.

What we learned from Portugal’s win over Holland:

  1. Portugal were tactically efficient. They relied on what they refer to as the “transition,” essential in counter-attacking football: the quick turnover of the ball from defense to attack. It was always three-prong (the Y), with two off the ball runners, one as a decoy and the other to receive the ball. It proved devastating. In defense, the Portuguese spaced their central defenders wide, with Miguel Veloso, their holding midfielder, dropping back to occupy the space just in front of the back two. The strategic spacing meant that the Portuguese knew exactly what to do with the ball whenever they recovered it: The attacking channel was well charted and well drilled.
  2. He doesn’t do it in the big matches? A beast of a performance from Cristiano Ronaldo was the perfect response to his critics who continue to insist he does not perform on the big occasion, conveniently forgetting displays such as the 2008 Champions League final and his match-winning contribution for Real Madrid at the Camp Nou this season. Quite simply unplayable. Scored a brace but could quite easily have had four of five.
  3. João Moutinho – the Portuguese Xavi – If it wasn’t for Ronaldo’s astonishing performance, João Moutinho would have been a deserved winner of the man-of-the-match award. What he lacks in stature he more than makes up for in bristling energy, football intelligence and no little technical ability. Always in the right place at the right time, the FC Porto midfielder combined beautifully with Ronaldo and Nani all night long.
  4. Composure under pressure – The one thing Portugal did not want going into the game was to concede a goal early on. They conceded a goal early on. The way the team shrugged off the setback and immediately hit back with some exhilaratingly but controlled attacking, while keeping its shape, speaks volume for the self-belief within the camp.
  5. One aspect to be improved upon – The marking at set pieces and crosses continues to be wayward at best and non-existent at worse, especially at the second post. Should Portugal tighten up in this area it will significantly increase their chances of making progress.

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