Wednesday 13 December 2017

Lisbon cubs at heart of Portugal rise

Duncan White

What got lost in the disarray of Holland's elimination on Sunday night was quite how good Portugal were.

When compared with those in orange it made for a striking contrast. Paulo Bento's team played their counter-attacking game with tactical discipline, each player demonstrating a perfect understanding of what his role was. They ruthlessly exploited the weaknesses of their opponents and could have run up a huge score.

Portugal are back in action tonight as strong favourites in their quarter-final with the Czech Republic in Warsaw; if they repeat the kind of performance they gave against the Dutch -- in which the only flaw was the finishing -- neither Spain nor France will be relishing a semi-final meeting.

It has been a remarkable achievement from Bento. Portugal are supposed to be in a fallow period after the retirement not only of the Golden Generation of Luis Figo and Rui Costa, but of the group, including Deco and Ricardo Carvalho, that succeeded them. Certainly, their shaky performances in qualifying behind Denmark suggested they would struggle to get out of the toughest group at the tournament.

The opening defeat by a very good German side showed signs that they were not going to go quietly. Only a late Manuel Neuer save from Silvestre Varela prevented an equaliser. Bento calmly rode the criticism his supposedly negative tactics received from Figo and Costa back home. He had seen enough to encourage him. Sure enough, Denmark were beaten 3-2 in Lviv (Varela making up for that miss with the winner) and the Dutch pulled to pieces in Kharkiv.

How is it that Bento has got this Portuguese team playing such cohesive, diligent football? The answer lies in a place called Alcochete, outside Lisbon. It is the site of Sporting Lisbon's academy and the birthplace of this Portugal team's football philosophy. Just as Spain have drawn on Barcelona and Germany on Bayern Munich, the Portuguese have looked to Sporting's remarkable talent school.

In 2002, Bento was a holding midfielder in the Sporting team that won the double under Laszlo Boloni. It was also the year the club opened the Academia Sporting for developing young players: a state-of-the-art facility with seven pitches and an on-site hotel.

Sporting try to get players young, whether from the slums of Lisbon or by casting their scouting net wide, as they did when finding Cristiano Ronaldo on Madeira and Simao Sabrosa in the north of the country. When found early enough, players are able to adapt to Sporting's extraordinarily high technical standards.

When Bento retired from playing in 2004, he took over the youth team. He had played alongside graduates like Ricardo Quaresma, Custodio, Beto, Hugo Viana and Ronaldo and imbibed the Sporting way. He selected all five of those former team-mates in his Euro 2012 squad.

Core

Sporting players make up the core of the Portugal squad. Five of the starting XI are Sporting graduates, while Joao Pereira, the right back, and Helder Postiga, the striker, have also played for the club.

Bento's side play with a bit more emphasis on defensive solidity than most Portuguese are comfortable with. His Sporting teams were sometimes criticised for being functional, so it was no surprise that he faced the same thing after the German defeat.

Yet Bento is clearly playing to the strengths of his players. He is not being negative, but simply seeing how much more dangerous Ronaldo and Nani are when attacking the broken lines of the opposition on the counter. If the Czechs get sucked too far up the pitch, it will be very hard to resist Portugal's transitional play. The Czechs face an unenviable task tonight. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

Czech Rep v Portugal,

Live, RTE2/BBC1, 7.45

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