For 45 minutes in their opening Group F match against Iceland, Portugal played like a well-oiled, fluid unit. For 45 minutes, they passed beautifully, linked up effortlessly and created multiple chances. For 45 minutes, they dominated the game — including a neat team goal in the 31st minute, created by Andre Gomes' one-two on the right followed by a slick finish from Nani.
And then it all came undone.
Following one moment of complacency from the favourites, Iceland scored a historic goal as the Portuguese defence went to sleep. Despite the Scandinavian players' deep presence in their own third, none of Fernando Santos' men bothered closing down Birkir Saevarsson; he was allowed all the time on the ball to swing it inside the box. Birkir Bojarnson, who was completely unmarked, finished calmly from six yards out.
Portugal right-back Vierinha's positioning was so off that he must have actually been surprised to turn around and see the ball landing inside the net. Centre-back Pepe was also nowhere to be found.
This was Iceland's first ever goal at the European Championships, and Portugal started unraveling. The cohesiveness of the first half gave way to disjointed passing, and their team work gave way to desperate individuals trying in vain to score another goal.
At the end of the 90 minutes, Portugal had 23 attempts on goal, only nine of them on target. This inability to convert isn't anything new for the Portugese though. Though they won seven out of their last eight matches in qualifying, all of them were by a slim 1-0 margin. With only one out-and-out striker in the team, they have struggled to be incisive in front and their finishing has been woeful at times.
"We've shown we are a good team, but this was the first game, there was a lot of anxiety. I think we will relax more from now, but we have to score more. We had enough chances, but we couldn't score another one," lamented man-of-the-match Nani after the match.
Santos and his men seem to be well aware of the dearth of goals plaguing them, but they simply cannot afford to be this profligate while attacking. The team needs to be ruthless and sharp, and put games to bed in order to avoid an early exit from the tournament.
And, speaking of goalscoring, Portugal's most prolific player — Cristiano Ronaldo — needs to stop misfiring. The forward had plenty of freedom in front of goal in a 4-4-2 formation, but took 20 minutes to actually make his first impact on the game, crossing a perfect ball to Nani on the back post, which the latter headed into the Icelandic keeper's legs. Five minutes later, when Pepe's pinpoint long ball offered a volleying opportunity inside the six yards, Ronaldo missed his kick entirely.
Since his international debut, Ronaldo has assisted or scored 43 per cent of all of Portugal's goals at Euro championships, but at this year's edition, he had a miserable opening game. As the minutes ticked by, his petulance seemed to grow. Following Iceland's goal, he cut a frustrated and isolated figure, with only sporadic contribution to his side. In Ronaldo, Portugal have a player who can single-handedly win games. But on Tuesday, when his team needed him the most, all he did was sulk. A ridiculous 45-yard effort off a free-kick was hit far and wide. It summed up his performance perfectly.
The Real Madrid prima donna had 10 shots on goal in the match, but only one of them was on target. Sitting deep for most of the 90 minutes, he failed to register any mark inside the Iceland box after the 23rd minute. He stormed off after the final whistle, and his petty post-match comments did little to help his case. "Iceland didn't try anything," he whined. "They just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. I thought they'd won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. We're frustrated, they didn't try and play. It's why I think they will do nothing here. In my opinion, it's a small mentality."
Ronaldo is possibly playing for his last shot at glory with the Portugal team, but his presence in the second half ended up doing more harm than good. Once under pressure, the team wilted and slipped into their old ways of relying on a moment of brilliance from their talisman to rescue them.
Portugal have some exciting young players in their midst this year in France, and need to make the most of their abilities as a team to progress further. Despite coming off with only one point despite all their domination, Portugal can take heart from the performances of 22-year-old Gomes and 23-year-old João Mário. Gomes, especially, was their standout player, winning 100 per cent of his tackles, creating four crucial chances and setting the only Portuguese goal of the night. The midfielder was immense in the first half, consistently drifting all over the field and distributing possession. Mario, too, had an impressive showing, linking play well and ushering full-back Raphael Guerreiro forward at every occasion.
With Hungary upsetting Austria in the earlier Group F match, it was a day for the underdogs. But the results of Week 1 leave the group in a tantalising position. Portugal take on the tournament's "dark horses" Austria next, and regardless of their second-half collapse on Tuesday, they showed enough promise to still progress to the round-of-16 safely.
Portugal has the pace and mobility to rip through teams, but only when they function as a compact and belligerent team. Rely on one man to take them through, and they will perish.
First Published On : Jun 15, 2016 10:40 IST