This article first appeared in Soccerly.com
As far as video game opponents go, Pete, my close friend and former roommate, is the worst.
Our gaming rivalry has gone on for a few years, and as difficult as it is to admit, he has recently been pretty much unbeatable. As if that weren’t bad enough, Pete also has the uncanny ability of taunting someone to a boiling point.
His favorite term is “smackdown,” and he will repeat it ad nauseam, with slight variations in tone and volume.
Needless to say, I’ve heard it a lot.
Perhaps, the most devastating consequence of being at the receiving end of one of Pete’s smackdowns is the inability to rebound effectively. Smackdowns are invariably accompanied by an almost insatiable desire for revenge, and revenge prevents one from focusing on successful rebounding strategies. Thus, smackdown is usually followed by…smackdown.
You may be wondering what this small and painful anecdote has to do with Portugal.
Simply put, Portugal suffered a German smackdown on Monday, and Portuguese fans better hope that the last few days have done enough to lessen that hunger for revenge, lest Sunday’s matchup with the U.S. goes terribly wrong.
The issue here is purely psychological – as I’ve been reminding everyone who cares to listen – and in footballing terms, the Portuguese aren’t exactly known for their mental fortitude (something that the Special One, Jose Mourinho, intimated when he claimed that Portugal never beat the big boys).
I can already hear the typical angry responses (from Portuguese fans only) that include the most typical of Portuguese football clichés:
“Portugal always does better when their backs are to the wall.”
Actually, that’s a general cliché, which like all clichés, only comes to fruition every so often.
I will concede that it could become a reality on Sunday, and the Portuguese could very well take the Americans to the cleaners. Nevertheless, there are a few causes for concern.
The most worrying is the previously mentioned desire to avenge the defeat in Salvador, which when compounded with the underestimation of a good U.S. team, could have devastating consequences.
Given that nothing other than a win will do for Portugal, it is not unreasonable to believe that the Portuguese will begin an all-out assault on Tim Howard’s goal from the first whistle, as opposed to their more measured (and sometimes infuriating) attacking approach. That could work – an early goal would alleviate pressure – but it could also backfire, as offensive assaults usually mean defensive sacrifices, and the U.S. has proven an adept counterattacking team, even without Landon Donovan. Not to mention that Portugal’s defensive positioning against Germany was appalling at best.
An untimely tournament ending injury to Fabio Coentrão is almost as problematic. After Cristiano Ronaldo, Coentrão is the most important player in Portugal’s set-up, not only for his own attacking prowess – which widens the field and spreads out opponents – but also because he is often the catalyst to Ronaldo’s best performances. The full-back’s ability to make regular forays down the left wing allows Ronaldo more freedom to attack through the middle, and the keen understanding both players developed at Real Madrid translates to the national team. Additionally, Coentrão’s capacity to quickly cover ground, and his defensive doggedness, make up for Ronaldo’s defensive laziness.
No matter who replaces the left-back, Portugal’s verticality will surely suffer.
Finally, how can Cristiano Ronaldo’s knee not be concerning? The frequent images of the superstar icing his thoroughly scrutinized joint have kept an entire nation on edge, even though there was no evidence of it hindering his already below-par performance against the Germans (or was that the reason?).
Over the past few weeks Portuguese players have devoted much of their press conferences to answering questions about their totemic teammate. Their answers have almost always been the same (coached, if you like). “Ronaldo is at 100%,” “Ronaldo is ready to play,” and “the ice is precautionary,” are the most regurgitated.
However, one wonders how it’s possible that confidence has not been shaken, no matter what anyone says. Portugal is not a one-man team, but it is a team all too dependent on one man, and not knowing if he’s at his best has serious psychological implications. Walking onto the field with a healthy reigning Ballon d’Or winner has a way of inspiring confidence while intimidating opponents. Having a wounded Cristiano is also better than not having a Cristiano, but it does chasten the spirit.
So, where does this all leave Portugal?
Definitely, not dead in the water. The Portuguese are still superior to the United States in almost every way.
Plus, Portugal can still control its own outcome, of course.
But taking comfort in the, “our destiny is still in our hands” credo, has a tinge of wishful thinking. And wishful thinking does not win a match.