For much of the last decade Portugal have been the nearly men of international football. Semi-finalists at Euro 2000, runners-up at Euro 2004 and fourth-place finishers in Germany four years ago, the Portuguese have long challenged on the biggest stage without ever getting their hands on any silverware. This time around, as the the squad prepares to travel to South Africa, expectations are relatively low for a team which struggled to qualify for the tournament and has looked uncharacteristically brittle during the stewardship of their deeply unpopular Coach, Carlos Queiroz.
Having been drawn in a group alongside Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Albania and Malta, Portugal were widely expected to cruise through qualification with the two Scandinavian sides battling it out for second place. But the Selecção das Quinas made heavy weather of their campaign, slumping to defeat at home to Demark and drawing with Sweden and Albania along the way before eventually stringing three consecutive victories together to snatch second place away from Sweden right at the last. Despite widespread concern as to the state of the squad and the ability of Queiroz to harness the undoubted potential of his players, Portugal came through their play-off clash with Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 on aggregate to book their place at this summer’s tournament in thoroughly unconvincing fashion.
The tactical blueprint followed by Queiroz’s Portugal has shifted significantly since he took over following the team’s elimination in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 at the hands of Germany. Having endured years without a recognised centre-forward following the retirement of Pauleta from international football in 2006, the naturalisation of the Brazilian-born Liedson last year has given the side an added attacking element, the Sporting Lisbon player having already scored three goals in his first seven appearances for his adopted country. Liedson’s selection has completely transformed the system Portugal adopt, with the team’s once familiar and characteristic 4-2-3-1 having been replaced by what is essentially a 4-3-3 with slightly withdrawn wingers.
One of the most notable tactical aspects of Queiroz’s reign has been the deployment of Real Madrid’s Pepe – nominally a centre-half – at the base of the midfield three, a move which has added steel and bite in the centre of the field (albeit combined with a slight sacrifice in technical ability), with the more creatively-natured Raul Meireles and Deco being given greater attacking license. Further up the field, Liedson, as already explained, plays as the centre forward, with Simao adopting a position on the left flank with Cristiano Ronaldo, the team’s captain and talisman, posing a significant threat on the right.
This Portuguese team clearly has the ability and experience to challenge for the most prestigious title of them all this summer, but Queiroz’s tenure has been an uncertain time for Portugal, a period of unfulfilled talents and serial disappointments that has left its fans pessimistic ahead of kick-off in South Africa. The “golden generation” of the early 2000s has moved on and there is little expected of a team clearly undergoing a transitional phase. But Portugal, despite the apparent ineptitude of their Coach (as demonstrated by last night’s tame 0-0 draw with minnows Cape Verde), are still more than capable of springing a surprise in what appears to be, on paper at least, an extremely competitive Group G.
Probable starting XI: Eduardo (Braga); Ferreira (Chelsea), Carvalho (Chelsea), Alves (Porto), Miguel (Valencia); Pepe (Real Madrid), Meireles (Porto), Deco (Chelsea); Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Liedson (Sporting Lisbon), Simao (Atletico Madrid)
The Road to South Africa: 2nd place in UEFA Group 1 – UEFA play-off winners
World Ranking: 3rd