ANA MAGALHAES / AIPS** in OLOMOUC: Portugal have already made history in the tournament by obtaining qualification to next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Since the start of this adventure, both players and coach had underlined the importance of that target. It will be only Portugal’s fourth participation at the Olympic football tournament after Amsterdam (1928), Atlanta (1996) and Athens (2004).
With five points – one win and two draws – Portugal won Group B, labelled by many as the ‘Group of Death’ and comprising the traditional and always-favoured England and Italy along with Sweden who had eliminated France in the play-offs.
The 1-0 debut victory against the England and, especially, the performance of Rui Jorge’s team, made it clear that Portugal is a serious contender in the tournament.
This was one of the best games in the tournament so far, given the positive football demonstrated by both teams and introduced names to note from Portugal in goalkeeper José Sá and playmaker Bernardo Silva.
The second match, against Italy, was different. Portugal struggled to create chances and owed a precious point to José Sá and his collection of decisive saves.
Before the match Rui Jorge had said he was expecting a “cynical opponent” but Italy took only six seconds to direct a shot on goal. In the second 45 minutes, the Portuguese side levelled up.
This prompted debate about the tactical scheme. In the 10 qualifying matches Rui Jorge had preferred a 4-4-2 with two lively and quick forwards, supported by the unpredictable and key movements of Bernardo Silva.
João Mário’s goal against England was the result of this, but it often seemed that a reference point, or target man, was missing in the attack.
Rui Jorge perhaps thought the same and launched Gonçalo Paciência – the only centre forward of the team – during the second half of the match against Italy, changing to a classic 4-3-3.
Portugal then took less time to reach to the box though the fatigue factor, both physical and mental, was obvious.
Nevertheless, Paciência made a difference against Sweden, coming off the bench to put Portugal in front (82min) and killing all doubts about qualification, despite the late Swedish equaliser from Simon Tibbling.
Rui Jorge’s team had improved by comparison with the draw against Italy. They had the match under control and were always closer to scoring a goal than conceding one.
Despite all the expectations and praises received by Portugal, there is detail on which the coach can reflect: while Portugal have the best defence in the tournament – only one goal conceded – they have also scored only two goals. Enough to be in the semi-finals but maybe too few for comfort.
Attack can win games, it has been said, but defence can win tournaments; it is time to see how true this can be, as Portugal’s dream of the European title remains alive for the first time in many years.
** AIPS is the international sports journalists’ association with 10,000 members worldwide and is co-operating with UEFA in running a Young Reporters course at UEFA U21 EURO in the Czech Republic. More information: www.AIPSmedia.com
# # # # # # # # # # # # # # #