x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Portugal take the tough route to Euro 2012

Player withdrawals have not helped with Bento's preparations, and they are still to secure a spot.

Paulo Bento, centre, has won four games out of four in charge of Portugal, and he must win the next two to ensure qualification.
Paulo Bento, centre, has won four games out of four in charge of Portugal, and he must win the next two to ensure qualification.

Poor Paulo Bento. At the beginning of the week, the head coach of Portugal would have been forgiven for wondering if any more players were about to turn their backs on his team.

A month after Ricardo Carvalho, the long-time defensive stalwart, stormed out of the national team hotel in a fit of anger, there was the mystery of Danny, the playmaker from Zenit St Petersburg.

Danny's sudden withdrawal from the squad selected to try to break the three-team deadlock at the top of group H of Euro 2012 qualifying came as an initial surprise to the coach.

The player cited "personal reasons", which led to all manner of speculations, one of them that the footballer feared the reception he might get from the crowd at Porto's Dragao stadium, the venue of tonight's meeting with Iceland.

Porto loyalists, it was suggested, might remind Danny how they felt about the way he had celebrated a goal he scored for Zenit against their club in the last round of Champions League games.

By Wednesday, Zenit themselves issued a statement saying Danny needed a minor operation on an injury.

This was news to Bento, but possibly a relief: Danny will be back in national colours soon.

The Portugal coach cannot afford to shed too many footballers of Champions-League calibre, however infantile their goal-celebrations or, in the case of Carvalho, however childish their tantrums at the idea they might not be automatic starters in the first XI.

Bento is discovering Portugal can be a perplexing and frustrating team to manage.

Just ask Carlos Queiroz, dismissed 13 months ago after a tortured qualifying campaign in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup finals, where Portugal lost to eventual champions Spain, was followed by disagreements with senior players, such as the Brazil-born pair, Pepe and Deco.

Having made a stumbling start - a 4-4 draw at home to Cyprus; a 1-0 defeat in Norway - to Euro 2012 qualifying under Queiroz, the Federation tried to engage Jose Mourinho as a short-term, part-time, emergency manager.

Bento stepped in when Real would not give Mourinho permission.

Things picked up under the 42-year-old former Sporting head coach. Four wins out of four competitive matches was a bright lift-off.

But any slip-ups over the next two matches and Bento's reputation could plummet.

If Denmark, who are in Cyprus tonight, gain more points over the next two fixtures than the Portuguese, the Danes will finish top of the table.

If Norway, equal on points with Portugal and Denmark, win against Cyprus on Tuesday and Portugal fail to win either of their two games, they could leapfrog the Portuguese, too.

And Portugal must travel to Denmark for their last match.

Like many of his predecessors, Bento has concerns about the balance of his squad.

With Valencia's Miguel having declared his international career over and Chelsea's Jose Bosingwa injured, a makeshift right-back may be required.

The target man, Hugo Almeida, is also unfit and, as Portugal is a nation that seems to produce an abundance of wingers - from Luis Figo to Nani - but struggles to reel off a long list of great centre-forwards it has launched into elite football in the half-century since Eusebio emerged with Benfica, that is problematic.

The party for the Iceland and Denmark games includes Helder Postiga, who at 29 has just shipped up at Real Zaragoza in Spain after recording rather meagre goal-scoring records in the Premier League, the French league and the Greek league.

Nuno Gomes, the 35 year old who hit his peak at international level at Euro 2000, is also called up.

This deficit at No 9 is frequently compensated by the captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, who, were he so minded, could take the centre-forward role and distinguish it.

Ronaldo prefers to operate from the wing and Bento is not likely to challenge that idea.

In the absence of Carvalho, Ronaldo is even more the side's senior figure, the star around whom the nation's prospects seem to revolve.