Friday, June 22, 2012

Portugal's Dominance(?)

Out of the Group of Death and into the semifinals. On Thursday, Portugal showed just how good they can be, dominating the Czech Republic on the way to a 1-0 win that should prove many of their doubters wrong... or should it? Portugal were certainly the better team in the second half and were by no means beaten in the first half, but this was one of those matches torn between being destined for overtime and destined to go to the better side with a late goal. As it turned out it was the latter instead of the former, but it wasn't until the 79th minute that Cristiano Ronaldo headed home the goal that would proper Portugal forward. I know, I know, this sounds like endless nitpicking of a Portugal side that has won three out of its four games, the only loss being to a German team that many picked to win the tournament. And yes, there is definitely something to be said for letting the results speak for themselves: no matter how you want to break it down, Portugal are in the semifinals against the winner of France vs Spain. However, just because Portugal are through and have played well does not mean they are without their flaws. Let's take a look at both sides of this team and see what we can come up with.

The Good

In the second half, the Portuguese players came storming out from the get-go, with Raul Meireles crossing to a free Hugo Almeida and the substitute striker blazing the header high over the bar. It was, as play-by-play announcer Adrian Healey said, a "statement of intent." From that moment until the rest of the game, Portugal were the better team. They had some chances in the first half, such as Ronaldo's lovely chest first touch into a turn and shoot that ricocheted off the near post, but the second half was truly where they came alive. The stats bear this out as well: 20(5) to 2(0) shots (on goal), 11 to 6 in corners, and 56% of the possession. These are all the full game numbers too, so you can imagine what the second half by itself would have been. As early as the 51st minute, I noted "Portugal starting to look like the better team who are eventually going to win" and play bore that out. 

Ronaldo looked dangerous everywhere he went and it looks like he has put together how to play within this system for his country. His header to win the game was a prime example of his excellent movement: as Joao Moutinho hits his cross, Czech fullback Gebre Selassie went to box out the man he was marking, only to feel that he wasn't there. Ronaldo has drifted back away from the ball a bit and as he realized where the cross would be hit to, he stepped around a puzzled Selassie and struck his header well past Petr Cech. Portugal went with this strategy of crossing the ball into the box in the second half as they were generally finding success on the wings. Some of the play inevitably came through the middle, but it was more on turnovers or scrambles for possession after an errant pass or clear. The attack was so consistent that the Czechs could not hold the ball long enough to relieve pressure, settling to belt the ball up field in order to reorganize the defense before the next attack, like soldiers on an ancient battlefield constantly reforming the lines. The Portuguese dominated play in the second and got their game winner. What more could you want?

The Bad

Look, this sounds dismissive to say, but I'll say it anyway: it's the Czechs. That doesn't mean that everything Portugal did was for naught and it doesn't mean that the Czechs are an awful team. It just means that this isn't an elite team that Portugal just beat and we need to keep that in mind when talking about their upside or ability to beat better opponents. The Czech Republic basically ceded the midfield to the Portuguese in the second half without a fight and there is no other team left in the tournament, save England, that will do that again. All of that possession and attacking play is all well and good, but they can't play that style against anyone else that's left, especially Spain if that's who they end up playing in the next round. The obvious response is that they can play defense and counter, and I'm not 100% sure on that. First, their defense wasn't really tested in this match. Pepe stepped forward well to head the ball away from danger on several occasions, but save Petr Jiracek making his runs up the field, the Czechs didn't apply any pressure and force Portugal to step up. So who truly knows if they can soak up pressure for most of a match while still dashing forward on the counter?

The mention of the counter brings up another overall problem: where does the finishing come from? Ronaldo, of course, and he has been menacing all tournament long. Perhaps they can rely on him for the offense going forward. But if they can't, who? Almeida showed no lust for the limelight based on his second half performance, Meireles (who I think is a fantastic player) was skying every ball over the goal, and Nani is more of a winger to provide than a pure goal scorer. Any one of these players can step up and bury a goal, but there is no consistency. You can always point to players who might score. You can't always find player that you trust to find a way to score. It took until the 79th minute of this game, a game against a not so fantastic team that tried to purely defend for the last 45 minutes and wasn't the best in the world at it. The possession was impressive, but this was exactly what it looked like: a superior team waiting to eventually pull ahead of an inferior opponent.

Portugal could still win this whole tournament and I don't want to give the impression that I think that impossible. They only have two games left and could certainly win both of them, regardless of opposition, to take how the title. But while this performance must reassure fans of the team, it does not mean that things will be the same going forward. They will still have to earn what they get and they will most likely have to do it in a very different way, beating teams who, on paper, are the better of the two. 

No comments:

Post a Comment