A game-winning goal by Bruno Alves may have served to instill Portugal with some confidence, but it did not mask the difficulties felt by a team that desperately misses its talisman.
With one more friendly to go before Portugal head to Brazil, Paulo Bento took advantage of Ronaldo’s absence to test out new players in a more familiar system against Mexico.
After flirting with the 442 against Greece, last week, Bento reverted to his preferred 433, albeit with one interesting change. Fabio Coentrão was inserted back in the lineup, but instead of slotting into his usual full-back position, the Real Madrid player started in the center of midfield.
While it isn’t that unusual to see Coentrão in the midfield, it was curious to see him assume that role for Portugal, particularly since he did not line up as an anchor man in Bento’s inverted midfield triangle. That position was taken up by Miguel Veloso, which meant that Coentrão and João Moutinho were entrusted with driving Portugal’s attack.
Although Coentrão had some difficulty adjusting to his new role, he and Moutinho soon began combining well enough to cause the Mexican midfield some problems. The two were especially effective at penetrating the Mexican defense with darting runs into the box during Portugal’s counterattacks. That was evident in the twenty-first minute when Nani’s run into the middle from the left side opened enough space for Coentrão to push forward, and string a through-ball to Eder, who forced an excellent save from Jesus Corona.
Despite the decent off the ball movement displayed by the Portuguese, Ronaldo’s absence has deprived the team of its counterattacking dynamism. After sitting back and soaking Mexico’s attack, Portugal was always able to spring into a counterattack, but there was an obvious lack of assertiveness and creativity once the Portuguese reached the attacking third.
Still, fans of the Seleção can take solace in Portugal’s defensive performance. For the most part, Luis Neto and Bruno Alves formed a good partnership, and André Almeida continued to show why Bento included him the twenty-three.
Ronaldo’s return to full practice today does suggest that we might be seeing him on Tuesday against Ireland.
His return can’t come soon enough. Portugal’s defense may be close to what it needs to be in the World Cup, but the attack has proven toothless without Cristiano.
Player Ratings (1-10)
Eduardo (9): Clearly the man of the match. Eduardo kept a clean sheet despite Mexico’s best efforts and shots. His save of Pulido’s shot in the 88th minute was particularly impressive, as it was from close distance and came off a broken play. Despite an excellent game, it is unlikely Eduardo will usurp Patricio.
João Pereira (6): Nothing particularly special from the Valencia man, who spent much of his time going tit for tat with his former teammate, Jose Andres Guardado. Pereira will have to play a big part in Portugal’s offense if the team has to go far. In order to do that, his understanding with Nani and his crosses must improve.
André Almeida (6): Another steady performance from the utility man. Almeida inspires confidence defensively, and his passing out of the back is excellent. The only knock on the Benfica man is his inability to overlap successfully and add another threat to Portugal’s attack.
Luis Neto (7): The Zenit player’s positioning is excellent. Neto spent much of his time marking Oribe Peralta, hardly giving him a sniff. Two last ditch tackles, in the fourteenth and sixty-seventh minutes may have save Portugal some blushes. The center of defense is in good hands if Pepe doesn’t return to fitness on time.
Bruno Alves (7): Not as sharp defensively as he was against Greece, but did his job for the most part. Alves’ ugly side popped up when he tackled Dos Santos from behind a shortly after the Mexican skinned the defender just outside the box. His headed goal in the last minute is the reason why he will not lose his starting role.
Miguel Veloso (5): An uninspired performance by the Dynamo man. Veloso spent much of the time protecting the back four, but he looked slow closing down players and his passes mostly went back or to the sides. He did generate a couple of counterattacks, but Portugal will need more from him.
Fabio Coentrão (6): Had trouble adapting to his new position early on, but once comfortable, Coentrão began stringing passes and making runs that caused the Mexican defense some imbalances. The Real Madrid player had an excellent chance of putting Portugal up early in the second half, seeing Ochoa make an impressive reflex save off a corner kick.
João Moutinho (6): A welcomed return to Portugal’s midfield. Moutinho showed flashes of the dynamism that has made him into one of the world’s best box-to-box midfielders, but a lack of match sharpness and understanding with Coentrão and Veloso hindered his performance. Moutinho assisted Alves’ goal with a beautiful curling ball that will be much needed against Germany.
Luis Nani (6): Not as incisive as he was against Greece, and as a result, much less influential in Portugal’s attack. His tendency to move into the middle from the wings did open spaces for his teammates, but his lack of directness and speed was troubling.
Vieirinha (5): The Wofsburg man had an excellent opportunity to make some noise, but apart from a nifty step over and daisy-cutter that forced Corona into a save, Vieirinha’s performance was flat. Like Nani, Vieirinha needed to be more assertive.
Eder (6): Often isolated, Eder did force one excellent save from Corona in the twenty-first minute. The Braga player is a nuisance to defenders with his size and work rate. With a little more help from the midfield and better service from the wings, Eder could make some noise on this team.
Varela (5): Brought some much needed drive as soon as he substituted Vieirinha, but he was unable to really change the tide of the game, which was starting to favor the Mexicans. If Ronaldo is fit, Varela should be the first winger off the bench.
Postiga (1): A dismal display from the man who everyone expects to start against Germany. Slow with the ball and wasteful in his passing, Postiga’s spot could be in jeopardy.
Rafa (3): Subbed in for Coentrão, played in the midfield triangle, and not on the wing. Rafa had enough time to steal a ball from Herrera and then get fouled by him when he was close to isolating himself against Ochoa.
Amorim (3): Had ten minutes to perform and came in with a lot of energy. The midfielder slotted in at right back, showing that Bento can use him just about anywhere in on the field.
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