If they were a pop star they'd be...
Created by Nas and Dr Dre in the aftermath of the former’s sophomore album, It Was Written, and the latter’s return to form with The Chronic, The Firm should in theory have brought the crème de la crème of mid-1990’s Hip Hop together under one roof, with spectacular results.
But it proved to be far less than the sum of its parts. This is often the case with Portugal. Despite regularly boasting some of the finest players in the world over the last fifteen years, they have consistently fallen short, often courting disaster at every turn.
After retiring in 2004, Paulo Bento was absorbed into the youth coaching structure at Sporting, where he spent the last four seasons of his career. After bringing through the likes of Veloso, Moutinho and Nani, he was promoted following the sacking of José Peseiro in 2005.
Bento won two Portuguese Cups at the Alvalade, but failed to mount a title-winning challenge, and was often criticised for his overly cautious approach. After a 1-1 draw at home to FK Ventspils in November 2009, Bento resigned.
In September 2010, Bento replaced the disgraced Carlos Queiroz, and after some initial scepticism, has attracted praise for his steadying of the ship. He was recently awarded a contract extension, which ties him to the Selecção until 2014.
Bento knows what he likes, and likes what he knows – indeed, this has been the main criticism levelled at him during his time in charge. The exclusion of Hugo Viana has been a particularly sore point for many, though the deep-lying playmaker was eventually called up to replace the injured Carlos Martins.
There are question marks at right back and centre forward. Miguel Lopes replaced João Pereira for Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Turkey, and despite the result had an impressive debut. Up front Bento has flitted between Hélder Postiga and Hugo Almeida, but has tended to go with the former Tottenham man when push comes to shove.
Mood back home
Many Portuguese football fans have an innately gloomy outlook. Following the aforementioned loss to Turkey and the previous weekend’s 0-0 draw with Macedonia, this pessimism is getting a thorough airing.
Last month Bento declared bullishly that he wanted a Portugal side “that dominates every moment of the game”, but most Portuguese would just settle for avoiding embarrassment at this point. There is a sense that things might come together if Group C can be negotiated, but nobody is under any illusions about the size of that ‘if’.
Coming off the finest season of his career, Cristiano Ronaldo carries the weight of a nation on his shoulders. Fiercely patriotic, the Real Madrid superstar has gone from marginalised and visibly frustrated under Queiroz to Portugual’s most prolific player under Bento. A missed penalty against Turkey on Saturday, though, provided a small sample of the immense pressure on Ronaldo. With the team set up to get the best out of him, and him alone, that is hardly a surprise.
Most likely to be top scorer
Ronaldo is the obvious candidate here. Just fifteen goals away from Pauleta’s record of 47, the 27-year-old is surely nailed-on to end his career at the top of the all-time list. He's at 16.00 to be top scorer at Euro 2012. Nani (who rifled home from an impressively narrow angle against Turkey) and Hélder Postiga (who boasts a better-than-expected international strike rate of 19 goals in 49 starts) are also worth a look. If you’re feeling adventurous, centre-back Bruno Alves has five international goals to his name, and is a perennial set-piece threat.
Most likely to get sent off
Take your pick. Each member of Bento’s likely starting back four (João Pereira, Bruno Alves, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão) have reputations for going postal on occasion, with Pepe undoubtedly top of the list. Further forward, Porto midfielder João Moutinho is rapidly carving himself out a niche as the Portuguese Paul Scholes. His ability to exert an influence on the game is matched only by his inability to time his tackles properly.
Three unknowns to keep an eye out for
Ten months ago, utility man Miguel Lopes was back at Porto after a successful loan spell at Real Betis, but without any great hopes for the future. However, a move to Braga and the first injury-free campaign of his career has led the 25 year-old to an unlikely spot in the squad.
Handed the captain’s armband at Sporting by Bento in 2006 but allowed to depart for Dinamo Moscow the following year, Custódio has also been revitalised by a move to Braga. A rugged holding midfielder with an eye for goal, he may finally be set to fulfil the promise he showed as a youngster almost a decade ago.
A tall, mobile forward coming off his first full season with the senior squad at Benfica, Nélson Oliveira has been the subject of much hype following a series of impressive cameos for the Eagles, and his key role in the Under-20 side that made it to last summer’s World Cup final. This tournament has arrived too early for him in terms of a starting spot, but he could make an impact off the bench.
With Portugal, it is all or nothing. Paulo Bento’s side have the ability to compete with the very best, but it is hard to imagine the side undone by Turkey living with Germany, Holland or even Denmark, who condemned them to the qualification play-offs last October. I think they'll be eliminated at the group stage (1.57), but with the caveat that if they do somehow progress, a run to at least the semi-finals is likely.