AMID the post-match scramble of Portugal’s Group B win over Holland on Sunday night in Kharkiv, something got lost.
While many focused on the demise of the Dutch, few waxed lyrical on how excellent the Portuguese side that had just condemned the fancied ‘Oranje’ to a third group defeat were.
When compared with their rivals on the night, 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 if they had a top striker, could have run up a huge score.
Portugal are back in action today, as strong favourites in their quarter-final with the Czech Republic in Warsaw. And 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 relish meeting them in the semi-finals.
It has been a remarkable achievement from Bento.
Portugal are supposed to be in a fallow period after the retirement of Luis Figo and Rui Costa, and more recently Deco and Ricardo Carvalho.
Certainly, their shaky performances in qualifying behind Denmark suggested they would struggle to get out of the toughest group at the tournament.
But their opening-game defeat to a very good German side showed signs 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 in 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.
It was while working with the next generation that Bento made his name as a coach.
He won the youth title in 2005 and was promoted to first-team duties the following season. The team was built around the players he had nurtured in the youth team.
Rui Patricio was promoted as goalkeeper, Joao Moutinho came in as playmaker, Miguel Veloso as holding midfielder, and Nani was brought through to replace Ronaldo on the wing. With this group Bento oversaw four consecutive second-place finishes, two Portuguese Cup victories and Sporting’s first progress beyond the group stages of the Champions League.
Those 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 striker Helder Postiga have also played for the club. The team play 4-3-3, with clearly defined roles for the midfield triangle. Veloso provides cover when team-mates get forward and serves as the team’s fulcrum. Raul Meireles moves from box to box and number 10 Moutinho has been given the freedom to make the play and roam between the lines and unpick defences with his passes.
The Bento twist is to 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 moans after the German defeat.
Yet Bento is clearly playing to the strengths of his players. He is not being negative but can clearly see how much more dangerous Ronaldo and Nani are when attacking the broken lines of the opposition while counter-attacking. If the Czechs get sucked too far up the pitch, they may well suffer the consequences.
At 43, Bento is a young coach, ceding two decades to many of his rivals.
But in selecting players who he has played with or coached since they were teenagers, he has forged a team with a strong identity.
The question now is how much further he can lead them into this tournament. The Czechs face an unenviable task this evening.