This article first appeared on Soccerly.com
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny
Cristiano Ronaldo’s return and the dismantling of Ireland provided a much-needed psychological boost for Portugal.
After underwhelming in their previous friendlies against Greece and Mexico, the Portuguese showed just how much of a threat they could be in the World Cup.
With Portugal’s totemic player back in the lineup, Paulo Bento returned to the game plan that he’s remained faithful to for the most part of his tenure as national team coach. Ronaldo started the game on the left side of Portugal’s attacking triad, while Fabio Coentrão slotted in his more familiar full-back position. Raul Meireles, whose injury prevented him from playing the two previous friendlies, also made a comeback, lining up with João Moutinho and William Carvalho in the middle of the park.
The changes proved instrumental to Portugal’s much improved performance.
The Portuguese left side was the catalyst to most of Portugal’s attacks. Although not at his best, Ronaldo drew enough attention to open up space for Coentrão to take advantage of. The Real Madrid defender was at his best throughout the game, rampaging down the wing, while showing excellent understanding with his club mate on numerous occasions. In the twentieth minute, a give-and-go between the two produced one of the moments of the game, as Ronaldo’s nifty back heel found Coentrão, whose deflected shot beat Ireland’s David Forde.
The move was symptomatic of Bento’s game plan. Ronaldo’s run into the midfield to receive Coentrão’s initial pass pulled Ireland’s right back, Stephen Kelly, with him, opening up space for the Portuguese defender to make the run. The triangular passing move was effective the entire game, even after Nani replaced Ronaldo in the sixty-fourth minute. In fact, Portugal’s fifth goal resulted from a similar counterattacking move, with the Manchester United winger creating a corridor for Coentrão to maraud his way through and poke the ball past Forde.
While the left side of Portugal’s attack contributed much to the game’s highlight reel, Bento’s inverted triangle was just as impressive. William’s presence just in front of the back four was an enormous deterrent to most of Ireland’s attacks, quickly closing space and tackling effortlessly (one of those tackles leading to the third goal). The Sporting player was also a key factor in Portugal’s aerial game, often preventing crosses from reaching their intended targets. The Portuguese newcomer did appear uncomfortable in the possession game at times, but his physique prevented his clumsy touches from ever providing the Irish with counterattacking opportunities.
Meireles’ return only added to Portugal’s physically assertive midfield. Along with William, the battle hardened Fenerbahce player enabled Moutinho to focus more on the creative side of things. The three players positioned themselves excellently, both defensively and offensively, and their understanding and possession became stronger as the game progressed.
The games versus Greece and Mexico had shown a defensively organized Portuguese team that would be hard to break down, but that had trouble developing and ultimately making the most of attacking possession. Against Ireland, Bento and his men seem to have found the right ingredients to make Portugal into a tournament contender.
“THE RESULT DOESN’T CHANGE HOW WE FACE GERMANY”
Player Ratings (1-10)
Rui Patricio (7): Conceded a goal through no fault of his own. The Sporting keeper looked comfortable collecting and deflecting potentially dangerous crosses. There was good reason to believe that a poor performance could have given Eduardo a legitimate shot at the starting 11, but Patricio has all but closed the door on the Braga man.
Ruben Amorim (7): The Benfica player has had to spend much of his time on the right side of Bento’s defense, even though he’s more comfortable in the midfield; nevertheless, Amorim has proven a more than viable option for the right back position. Defensively sound, Amorim’s tough tackling and timely passing were crucial to Portugal’s first goal.
Fabio Coentrão (9): It is difficult to believe that the Real Madrid player is one of Paulo Bento’s potential center-mids. Coentrão’s performance showed why he’s just been given a contract extension to stay in Madrid until 2018. His tenacious tackling and offensive production will be vital to Portugal’s success, and his display against the Irish can only encourage the Portuguese.
Ricardo Costa (7): Another solid display by the Valencia captain. Mostly responsible for cleaning up wayward balls at the back, Costa was sure in his touch, dominant in the air, and secure in his passing out of the back. The veteran will likely see very few minutes in the World Cup, but his experience and leadership mean that Costa can be relied on if called upon.
Luis Neto (8): The tough tackling Neto will probably not start against Germany in Portugal’s first World Cup game, but one could easily make a case for his inclusion in the first eleven. The Zenit man has impeccable timing, and is an intimidating man-marker, who is willing to put his body on the line to win the ball (just ask James McClean). Perhaps, the only thing keeping Neto on the bench is Bruno Alves’ superior offensive set-piece game.
William Carvalho (7): Nervous at the start of the game, once again, William’s display progressively grew stronger. The Lisbon Lion is a physical specimen whose positioning and strength could see him break into the eleven. His reluctance to push forward, along with his impressive ball winning, allowed Meireles and Moutinho a lot more chances to freely join the attack. The only thing missing from William’s game is the ability to distribute the ball more effectively.
Raul Meireles (7): A successful return to the 11 after a lengthy absence. Meireles showed how important his presence is in the midfield. As comfortable tackling as he is passing the ball, the Fenerbahce bad boy quickly found his rhythm and set many of Portugal’s counterattacks in motion with his link-up play. Meireles was clearly exhausted when he was subbed off, which is normal given his recent return to fitness.
João Moutinho (8): The Monaco stalwart is the only untouchable player in Bento’s midfield. Moutinho is the driving force behind all of Portugal’s offensive movement, and it is obvious that the Portuguese are at their best when the diminutive player is allowed to orchestrate. His inch perfect, forty-yard pass to Nani in the development of Portugal’s fourth goal was one of the standout moments of the game. Expect Portugal to do very well in the World Cup if Moutinho shows up.
Silvestre Varela (7): With Ronaldo back in the mix, Varela will have to fight Nani for the second attacking winger positon, and no one can make an argument against him. The winger is more defensively disciplined than Nani – although he did make one or two positional mistakes during the game – and his offensive contribution is consistent. Varela delivered two excellent crosses that led to two goals – the first finding a wide-open Hugo Almeida.
Cristiano Ronaldo (7): His return couldn’t come soon enough. His presence during the warm up energized the Portuguese fans that packed MetLife Stadium, as well as his teammates. While Ronaldo was far from his best, his inclusion in the lineup is enough to intimidate his opponents. Ronaldo had one of his trademark free kicks hit the crossbar, another parried by Forde and a thundering header blocked by Forde again before Almeida snuck in the rebound. His back-heel pass to Coentrão set-up the second goal of the game.
Hugo Almeida (8): There was a sense of incredulity in the press box when Almeida scored his second goal of the game, as the Portuguese media has long mocked Almeida’s inability to score. That mocking will be suspended after Almeida scored two opportunistic goals: the first on a wide-open header, and the second on a quick rebound off of Forde. A confident Almeida is a huge plus for a Portuguese team that has traditionally lacked an efficient striker.
Luis Nani (8): The Manchester United winger must have noted Varela’s growing influence on the team, and felt threatened, because he had an immediate impact on the game, embarrassing the Irish defense time and again. Nani assisted in two goals, first finding Vieirinha with a floated cross, and then setting up Coentrão with a measured through-ball. Nevertheless, the undisputed moment of the game was when Nani orchestrated a string of passes that culminated in his disallowed back-heeled goal.
Pepe (5): Like Meireles, and Ronaldo, Pepe made his first appearance in weeks against the Irish. There was little defending to do from the 64th minute onwards, but Pepe did have time to make one mistake, rashly missing a tackle that led to a dangerous Irish attack.
Helder Postiga (3): The Lazio man didn’t do himself any favors after a disastrous performance against Mexico. It’s hard to fathom how Postiga will win back his starting spot following another performance where his touch was clumsy and his passes picked off.
André Almeida (6): The young defender is one of Portugal’s biggest surprises. Almeida is a very good and disciplined defender who might very well start against Germany instead João Pereira. It was Almeida’s crushing tackle in the 77th that led to Vieirinha’s goal.
Veloso (3): The defensive midfielder only had ten minutes to contribute, and spent most of his time maintaining possession in order to rest Portuguese legs. It was the first time Veloso and William lined up together in the 433.
“WILLIAM AND VELOSO HAVE SHOWN THEY CAN PLAY TOGETHER. MIGUEL (VELOSO) HAS THE CHARACTERISTICS OF AN 8”