Whilst Germany looked impressive in their World Cup opener, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal appear to have big issues to resolve, says Alex Dunn.
The applause that broke out in the press room was a combination of awe and sarcasm. On the eve of Portugal’s opening game against Germany it was almost an hour behind schedule when World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo deigned the assembled media from across the globe with his presence.
The haunted looks of those on deadlines were dismissed with a smile, shrug and a ‘am I late?’ rhetorical question.
Only those with a particularly poisoned sense of karma would take pleasure in the fact that it was the exact same expression that Ronaldo would sport throughout 90 tortuous minutes the very next day. On the back of Holland’s demolition job on Spain, it’s fair to say Iberia and Salvador have not made the best of bedfellows.
Even given the fact Germany were two goals up by the time Pepe managed to parody himself with all the expertise Steve Coogan has managed in The Trip, via the most ludicrous of red cards, to attempt to gauge just how good Joachim Low’s side are is an almost obsolete task such was Portugal’s paucity of either poise or polish in the searing afternoon sun. What is more clear cut, certainly on this evidence, is that if Ronaldo is to join the pantheons of World Cup greats – Cruyff, Pele, Maradona et al – then he will have to carry his team-mates to the extent the latter did in Mexico ’86.
“Look at my statistics and my CV – I have nothing to prove. My career has been great so far and I just want that to continue,” chided Ronaldo in the aforementioned press conference, when asked whether Brazil 2014 represented a chance to cement his status as one of the finest of all time.
As with Lionel Messi, to query either’s credentials in comparison to what has passed is to treat bygone generations with the reverie one usually reserves for yellowed photographs found in the loft but, nonetheless, at 29, with an ego recently described by Rio Ferdinand as ‘gargantuan’, it will not be lost on him that this realistically represents his best, if perhaps not final, chance of winning the big one. It’s a big, no make that gargantuan, ask after tonight.
The only positive Portugal can glean from a 4-0 defeat that will subsequently rob them of Pepe after an act of self-sabotage on Thomas Muller that even by his lofty standards was pretty jaw-dropping, and quite possibly Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida to injury, for subsequent group games is that Ronaldo came through 90 minutes unscathed. Had he not made light of a struggle with tendinosis in his left knee that had threatened his participation, a tricky looking Group G that also houses USA and Ghana could, and may still, prove problematic to the point of elimination for the Selecao.
The first half stats are telling. Ronaldo managed just 16 touches; only Eder – a 28th minute replacement for the injured Almeida had fewer. He made just eight passes (albeit at 100 per cent accuracy) and completed zero dribbles. Acquiring Sami Khedira’s shirt as he trudged off with Portugal 3-0 down was perhaps his most significant contribution to proceedings. By full-time he had upped his shots tally to seven, one more than the rest of his team-mates combined. Old habits die hard.
Portugal boss Paulo Bento is known for his dedication to a 4-3-3 formation that he sees as key to his ‘nation’s football DNA’ and a predilection for conservatism; both were on show in Salvador. Eschewing calls for the inclusion of William Carvalho to add youthful vitality to a middle three that is neat and capable of quick turnovers on the counter-attack but one that can lack bite, Bento selected the exact same XI that lost to Spain at the semi-final stage of the European Championship two years ago. From the off, this felt like a tired Portugal team.
Whereas Bento plumped for the lumbering presence of Almeida to spearhead his attack, Low’s selection was almost diametrically opposed as he left Miroslav Klose on the bench and kept faith with Muller in a false nine role. Germany’s hat-trick (anti) hero, depending on your perspective on the dark arts, interchanged fluidly throughout with a wonderfully nuanced midfield that will dominate far better sides than Portugal over the next couple of weeks. That said, why Bento thought his three could match Germany’s five, at times six, in the middle third is a question only the Portugal coach will be able to answer.
If Germany were slick, Almeida looked as if he had his feet stuck in one of the oil variety when in the opening minutes he first struggled to keep up with Ronaldo’s burst down the left flank before stuttering to the extent even getting a shot off seemed quite the achievement. The primary mandate for whoever is charged with being Portugal’s number nine ever since Pauleta called it a day has been to provide a decoy for Ronaldo; to play the sultry siren who steals your attention in a crowded bar whilst the boyfriend does likewise with your wallet.
On this showing, regardless of Almeida’s fitness, Bento would be wise to go with the more mobile Eder from the start against USA in Manaus. Perhaps even Helder Postiga, the Jonathan Wilkes of international tournament football, would be an upgrade. Regardless of who gets the nod, it will be a case of Wagyu beef being served with a side of Iceland frozen chips and peas.
At the back Portugal were porous throughout. An inability to deal with Germany’s runners proved their undoing, although to be fair when Low’s side are in the ascendancy there’s perhaps no shame in that. Joao Pereira’s failure to match Mario Gotze’s cute run that culminated in the German being pulled down to give Muller opportunity to dispatch from the penalty spot in the twelfth minute set the tone, but it will be the second goal that his side conceded that will enrage Bento most. A routine corner saw Pepe and Bruno Alves negate their zonal responsibilities to mark each other, to give Mats Hummels opportunity to plant an admittedly fine header past Rui Patricio.
Thereafter it was all about Muller, both the good and ugly. The part he played in Pepe’s dismissal will generate pontification to the point of ad nauseam over the next few days but whatever your moral stance to a reaction that belonged more to the national theatre than a football field, Low will turn a blind eye such is his player’s innate ability to sniff out a goal. His hat-trick as the game meandered to a pace more befitting of a practice match after the break takes his World Cup tally to eight in seven appearances; not bad for a 24-year-old ‘false’ nine.
The most worrying aspect for Portugal though is that even in the very early sparring when the two sides looked relatively evenly matched, the concern Ronaldo aired pre-match looked alarmingly prescient: “I believe that one player is not a team. I am here to help the team. I am an additional player and I can make a difference, but I can’t carry the team on my back. I want to be champion, but let’s take it a step at a time. We are not in the group of favourites, but we are one of the best. For me it pushes me forward to succeed at a tournament. I like challenges and I want to do my best in whatever competition I am in.”
CR7 might be wise not to use ‘I’ nine times when making a point about the importance of team-work. There was a reverence on the part of his compatriots throughout that was counter-productive. Ronaldo’s naked ambition, at times literally, is there for all to see but it’s hard not to feel a less solipsistic viewpoint would be more beneficial.
When Miguel Veloso robbed Philipp Lahm deep in Germany’s half with the game goalless the obvious pass was to Almeida to his right, but he elected to feed in Ronaldo on the opposite flank. Likewise, when Coentrao had a clear chance to strike for goal a more difficult pass was sought to play in Ronaldo. Nani, a player not normally known for an inability to imagine his name in lights, also appeared prohibited in his choices; which unfortunately for the Manchester United man proved to be dire throughout.
Bento has made no secret of the fact he sets his side up to get the most out of Ronaldo but when the rest of his players appear to be worshipping at the altar of the individual over the collective it’s a dangerous road to go down.