Euro 2012 Preview: Portugal
A European Championship without Europe's best player looked a possibility after Portugal drew its first qualifier 4-4 with Cyprus, then lost 1-0 to Norway. The Portuguese federation sacked Carlos Queiroz as coach and replaced him with Paulo Bento. Though he is the youngest coach at the Euros (42), Bento has shown no fear in making big decisions: he has fallen out with Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa and banned them from the squad, while releasing the pressure on star Cristiano Ronaldo by moving him back out to the wing. That move was decisive as Portugal crushed Bosnia and Herzegovina in a playoff to reach the tournament.
Bento and Ronaldo were former teammates at Sporting Lisbon, and the player's support, particularly when the row with Carvalho was getting ugly, has strengthened the coach's power base.
Bento is much more popular with the players than the defensive-minded disciplinarian Queiroz, and Portugal's 4-0 friendly win over Spain in November 2010 injected the whole squad with belief. That is proven by the bonus structure Portugal's players agreed on with the federation: no prize money if they fail to get out of the group, and the first installment comes if they reach the quarterfinals.
With one of the tournament favorites, Germany, first to play in Group B, they may need to beat Denmark and the Netherlands to make it to the last eight. If Ronaldo shows anything like his Real Madrid form, then anything is possible.
There's no question that Ronaldo is Europe's best player, but it has always been tougher for him to replicate his form in national colors. Rather than trusting his team, he often tries to take on one player too many and gets frustrated at his teammates' shortcomings. When Bento was appointed coach, he restored him to his position out wide, which has taken the scoring burden off his shoulders. But given his record-breaking season at Real Madrid, a strong tournament showing could help Ronaldo regain the Ballon D'Or he last won in 2008.
He will have an important role in this side: a strong winger whose strength is in one-on-one duels against defenders. It will be an advantage for him that all the attention will be directed on Ronaldo. After dramatically missing the World Cup after sustaining an injury during training, Nani is desperate to prove himself at this level.
In the absence of Carvalho, defense could be the Achilles heel for this Portugal side, especially as Pepe and his partner, Bruno Alves, often get themselves booked or dismissed when it can be avoided. Pepe is the new leader of the defense, and his speed will be crucial to stopping Group B opponents.
The coach knows his preferred defense and attack, but the only position up for grabs going into the tournament is in defensive midfield. Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles are clear starters, but Bento has a decision to make with the deep-lying midfielder. Miguel Veloso played very little for Genoa in the last few months, while Braga's in-form midfield guardian, the aptly-named Custodio, had never been capped when he made Portugal's Euro 2012 squad. A pure holding midfielder, he could be the one who stays back and allows Moutinho and Meireles to play their box-to-box game.
The Benfica striker may only be 20 years old and have one cap to his name, but Oliveira is the name on everyone's lips. He was the player called to speak to the press at the first training camp after the squad got together, and for as long center forwards Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida fail to convince the fans, Oliveira will be the player they want to see. He'll start as a substitute, though.
If Portugal wins Euro 2012, or get close, then Cristiano Ronaldo could be acclaimed as the best Portuguese footballer ever. At the moment, Eusebio is still almost unanimously considered the best player, but Ronaldo is getting closer and closer. If the Real Madrid man helps Portugal win a tournament (it has yet to win a World Cup or a European Championship), the argument might be over.
Bento fields a 4-3-3 formation, but his team is more attacking than under Queiroz, with left back Fabio Coentrao's aggressive and speedy forays up the flank allowing Ronaldo to often move into a central position. Moutinho and Meireles operate as box-to-box midfielders, with Veloso, or maybe Custodio, playing the holding role. Portugal is still short of the quality center forward to snaffle up Ronaldo's and Nani's wing play, so for the first game at least, Postiga will get the nod.