Over the next couple of months, SI.com will profile two valuable, but perhaps undervalued, under-the-radar players on each of the U.S. men's national team's Group G opponents at this summer's World Cup. As a result, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Asamoah Gyan will make way for their lesser-heralded teammates in this space. The next in the Know Your Enemy series is Portugal left back Fabio Coentrao.
Fabio Coentrao was 13 when he joined his local club, Rio Ave. He soon developed as a quick and direct winger, a player with technical ability but also a certain rawness. He made his first-team debut at 16, and by 18 had established himself as a regular for his hometown club, then playing in the Portuguese second division, and earned the nickname the "Figo of the Caxinas."
Rio Ave narrowly missed out on promotion that season but a decent run in the Portuguese Cup brought Coentrao to national attention, particularly when he scored with a 30-yard drive in a 2-1 defeat to Sporting, one of the three traditional giants of the Portuguese game.
Named the division's "Breakthrough Player of the Year" and compared to Arjen Robben by World Soccer, a move was inevitable, and Coentrao joined Benfica. Initially, though, he found opportunities limited and had stints on loan at Nacional (Madeira), Real Zaragoza and back at Rio Ave. The feeling was that for all his pace and his willingness to run at opponents, the rawness had never gone away and he lacked the close technical ability to be a winger of the highest class.
After returning to Benfica in 2009, the club began to use him as an attacking left back, and it was there that he finally found his calling. By 2010, he was a regular and had become a Portugal international, all the more dangerous from fullback, because he tended to have momentum and already to be moving at speed when he reached an opposing defender. Benfica won a league and cup double that season and followed it up with another cup the following year.
Coentrao was named Benfica's player of the year for 2010-11 which, as is the way of things in Portugal, meant his sale was all but inevitable. It was Real Madrid that signed him, paying 30 million euros, with Argentinian central defender Ezequiel Garay moving to Benfica as part of the deal. Coentrao has found Brazilian Marcelo - a player who is very similar stylistically and gave the U.S. fits during a 2012 friendly in Washington, D.C. - difficult to dislodge from the left back slot. Although he has filled in both at right back and in central midfield, he has never become a first-choice player, starting just 12 league games in his first season, 16 in his second, and only five so far this campaign. He has, though, remained a regular for Portugal.
HOW HE FITS IN
The task for any Portugal manager is simple: Build a system in which Cristiano Ronaldo can thrive. Paulo Bento tends to set up in a 4-2-3-1, with Ronaldo operating on the left of the three. He does not, of course, stay there, his natural tendency to cut infield accentuated by the way he goes hunting for the ball; for Portugal even more than for Real Madrid, Ronaldo seems gripped by a sense that he has to win games single-handedly, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
That means Portugal has to have a left back who is happy to get forward and has the stamina to get up and down the flank constantly. Ronaldo's capacity to cut inside is enhanced if he has a player overlapping: the opposing fullback is cast into a quandary - does he stay inside to block Ronaldo's route to goal, or try to cut out a potential pass to the play coming on the outside?
Coentrao also provides attacking width on the left. Without his surges Portugal could become very narrow, and it's notable that he was absent when Portugal produced what was arguably its least effective attacking display in World Cup qualifying, a 1-1 draw at home against Northern Ireland.
Coentrao's defensive role is also vital, though, particularly as he is often left isolated by Ronaldo. The reigning Ballon d'Or winner, to offer the most charitable interpretation, often finds his attacking adventure meaning that he is not in a position to track his fullback.
WHY HE POSES SUCH A DANGER
Coentrao is a key to Portugal for two reasons. On the positive side, he helps get the best out of Ronaldo, which means that whoever plays on the right of the U.S. midfield - whether it's Graham Zusi, Landon Donovan or another option - has to be diligent in not allowing him to charge forward unchecked. But it's also Coentrao who is left to pick up the pieces from Ronaldo's unwillingness or inability to defend, and, although he has been playing at fullback for five years now, he is not the most natural defender.
It's a risk, but there is an opportunity for an attacking right back - Geoff Cameron or Brad Evans, perhaps - to link with his wide midfielder and isolate Coentrao. One of the great disappointments of Euro 2012 was the performance of the Czech Republic right back Theodor Gebre Selassie in the quarterfinal against Portugal: he had been an exciting attacking presence in the group stage, but he curtailed his forward sallies to against Ronaldo; that was understandable, but at the same time it seemed an opportunity missed.
Portugal's left side is its great strength, but it can also be a vulnerability.