The Selecção weren’t displaying the best football that any fan could dream of, but they did just enough to reach Euro 2008 with Cristiano Ronaldo emerging as the team’s top scorer in the qualifiers. But just as the star winger was expected to power Portugal to more success ahead of the competition in Switzerland and Austria, his fitness suffered a setback.
It eventually blew the Selecção’s chances of going one better than they had done four years back in their own country; Portugal couldn’t stand Germany’s forces in the quarter-finals of the tournament. They crashed out at the expense of Joachim Lowe’s men who subsequently lost to Spain in the final whereas Captain Cristiano Ronaldo had to go through an ankle operation under the advice of doctors.
Following his return to the Portuguese national team, the former Manchester United play maker needed time to adjust and adapt to the tactics of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s successor, Carlos Queiroz. In fact, it seemed like Cristiano Ronaldo never found himself on the pitch for the Selecção anymore: his influential performances and goals had been substituted by poor shows, petulant body language and a two-year goal drought – much to the anxiety and annoyance of Portugal’s supporters.
The country’s national football team couldn’t hide its problems from the public as Portugal’s 1-0 defeat to Spain in South Africa revealed Carlos Queiroz’s lack of control over his players. Time was running fast down the clock for the ex-Manchester United assistant who later got replaced by Paulo Bento following Portugal’s alarming start to the Euro 2012 qualification campaign.
However, Paulo Bento’s appointment as the new manager of the Portuguese national team created divided opinions among fans. While some lamented Jose Mourinho’s unavailability to succeed Queiroz, others expressed their huge doubts over the coaching skills of Paulo Bento who cannot boast of European football achievements as a player. But patriotism saw a few supporters applaud the fact that Portugal’s Football Federation had remained faithful to their idea of offering the national team’s coaching job to a local man.
In his first two matches, Paulo Bento made immediate effects thanks to two vital victories in the Euro 2012 qualification campaign. Great signs also appeared as the former Sporting Lisbon coach marked a new era in Portugal’s football history: smiles back on the players’ faces during training and on the field of play, Nani’s emergence as a true key player, good team play and goals for Cristiano Ronaldo.
But how strong are these signs? They came against “lower” oppositions in the name of Denmark and Iceland after all, one may recall.
Well, Spain could answer this question when they’ll challenge Portugal in a friendly match on Wednesday. The Spaniards have the edge over their Iberian rivals in terms of head-to-head history. On paper, they are also the hot favorites to deny Portugal from clinching a spirit-boosting victory.
In fact, the Portugal vs Spain international fixture is not “just another friendly match”; it’s actually more than a simple encounter meant to rehearse. While Spain will use it to check on their potential as the reigning world champions, Portugal will see it as a real test. Now two men will come under the spotlight:
Paulo Bento, the coach, and Cristiano Ronaldo, the captain. Is Paulo Bento really up to his task of guiding the Selecção through the transitional phase in which they are at the moment? Is Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo really back for Portugal as people had confirmed he was following his good performance in the team’s last two matches? How strong are the Portuguese currently?
These are the kind of questions that interested football fans are wondering about ahead of Wednesday night’s Portugal vs Spain international friendly match. How will Paulo Bento, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Spain answer them?