It was in true Cristiano Ronaldo fashion that he should dominate Portugal’s preparations for their final World Cup qualifier with Luxembourg where the Real Madrid winger will play no part.
The 28 year old, captain and spearhead of Paulo Bento’s side, picked up a late booking in the 1-1 draw with Israel, conveniently ruling himself out of Tuesday’s dead-rubber and instead wiping the slate clean for his participation in next month’s play-offs which Israel, against all odds set by various betting sites such as 888 Poker, sent the Seleccao hurtling towards with a punishing late equaliser.
“I can’t talk about that [booking]”, Ronaldo told reporters after seeing yellow for a late protest with the referee. “Fifa is always very attentive to those situations. The play-off is the most important and I don’t want to be out. I will be at those two matches”.
Pepe, his team-mate at Madrid, also showed the same initiative, sacrificing himself for the date with Luxembourg in Coimbra so he can be present for the last chance saloon of the play-offs, which seem likely for Portugal barring a miraculous turnaround on Tuesday. Russia travel to Azerbaijan for their final fixture, boasting a vastly superior goal-difference as well as a three-point cushion over Bento’s side who seem destined for the runners-up spot.
Group F was heading for a showdown finale as Portugal were responding to Russia’s 0-4 thrashing of Luxembourg with a 1-0 lead over Israel, handed to them by a first half strike by Ricardo Costa, before Rui Patricio gifted Ben Basat a leveller with five minutes to go. It was a disappointing conclusion to a game that was dominated by the home-side who possessed no real cutting-edge.
Patricio failed with his goal-kick and Basat was a cool acceptor of the invitation, lifting the ball over the hapless goalkeeper to all but assure Fabio Capello’s Russia the sole automatic qualification place, leaving Portugal with another round of work to do.
If Ronaldo remained tight-lipped on his economical use of a yellow card, he had plenty to say on the standard of his nation’s performance. “We were apathetic in the second half, looked sleepy even, and things did not go well. We lacked a bit of maturity at times, maybe it was because we had a young team with a lot of changes”, he said “We have to improve in many aspects”.
The country’s biggest circulating newspaper, Correio Da Manha, was even more scathing, saying they “played without tactics, without strategy, joyless, dull”. Israel defended well and were organised in numbers, Ronaldo claimed they parked two buses, but it was indeed surprising to see a nation with the likes of Nani, Ronaldo and Joao Moutinho at its disposal so devoid of any attacking imagination or inspiration.
In defence of Paulo Bento, the manager’s hands were tied with regular striker Helder Postiga out with suspension and Hugo Almeida filling in. In a defence that had never played together before, Andre Almeida made his debut while Antunes was handed just his fifth cap, Raul Meireles was also out so Ruben Micael partnered Miguel Veloso in an unfamiliar midfield.
It may not have surprised the manager to see his team produce a fragmented display, that he turned to the previously uncapped Josue to replace Micael with twenty minutes to go was suggestive of the dearth of options he possessed.
Almeida missed a good chance with a header and also saw a goal disallowed for offside in the second period, though the tall striker seldom genuinely threatened the Israel goal. Dudo Aouate had to be alert to repel a couple of Cristiano Ronaldo’s venomous free-kicks but the visitors, ranked 58 places below the Seleccao in the FIFA listings (Portugal 11; Israel 69), were relatively comfortable throughout.
Portugal were dogged by the lack of fire-power that has ultimately proved their downfall in group H, especially with top-scorer Postiga, who has 5 goals, missing. Bruno Alves, a central-defender, has 4 goals but he too was absent, leaving Ronaldo, who also has 4, to seize the responsibility, but he was successfully nullified.
Only four other players have managed to score one goal for Portugal throughout this qualifying process and as they toiled against Israel, it was easy to cast the mind back to the pivotal games which have cost them dear in this group; the 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland in Porto as well as the narrow 1-0 loss in Moscow spring to mind.
Two games in which Portugal enjoyed plenty of possession and, in the case of Northern Ireland, carved out plenty of chances but failed to translate their share of the ball into goals due to a lack of incisiveness.
The 6 points dropped in two draws with Israel and one with a resilient Northern Ireland have proved extremely costly. “Our second half was worse than the first, we dominated but did not create many chances,” Portugal coach Paulo Bento told a local radio station, “We struggled to pass the ball around and were imprecise at times but were penalised by one mistake in the end.” It was a familiar tale.
“These unfortunate mistakes happen to the best players in the world, it can happen to anyone, the most important is that we secured a play-off spot,” said Andre Almeida, attempting to claw the positives from his debut which ended in disappointment.
He is likely to be in Bento’s squad as they head into another play-off, they needed that route to enter Euro 2012, as are Ronaldo and Pepe as they sit out what should be a routine win over Luxembourg, who sit bottom of the group.
Due to UEFA’s alteration to the seeding system, Portugal will be favourites to reach their fourth World Cup finals in a row, but Bento will be aware that, as Ronaldo is, that they have to improve if they are to make a similar impact to 2006, when they finished fourth.
The Real Madrid winger will miss his country’s final World Cup qualifier and if they fail in the play-offs, the biggest tournament on the planet could be without, arguably, its most gifted talents. Bento and co. have to keep working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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