Portugal kept its WC dream alive, albeit with the faintest pulse, courtesy of a 1-0 victory tonight over Hungary at the Ferenc Puskas. Any other result would’ve seen them eliminated, and would’ve meant a World Cup without Ronaldo in addition to possibly Messi. Of course, my television was nervously tuned into the Group One match today to see if The Greasy One would be jetsetting somewhere next June NOT in South Africa. (What, you didn’t think I was going to pay 25 bucks to see a Rooney/Eduardo dive-off at Wembley during a recession, did you?)
Only ten minutes into the match and Pepe puts the visitors ahead with an authoritative header. It was textbook. Deco supplied the curling cross from a free kick in the left channel, the Portuguese big boys all came storming towards the six, and the Real Madrid defender buried it past the onrushing goalkeeper. Carlos Queiroz hasn’t cracked a smile that wide since his days of holding Alex Ferguson’s chewing gum.
But for all the worthy superlatives for the execution of said set piece, it’s a blatant indication of what’s been missing. A team with Ronaldo and other technical wizards is certain to win numerous free kicks in the attacking half. (I believe Ronaldo was the most fouled player in the Prem two years running, and if not he’s close). When it’s central, Ronaldo drives it on target and ups his tally of dead ball goals as Liverpool fans scream “they don’t count, they’re only free kicks!” If it’s from a wide position, Deco or Simao delivers a dangerous cross and who’s there to meet it? Take your pick from Ronaldo or Pepe (two of the best attacking headers of the ball), Bruno Alves (also an aerial threat), or Carvalho (even he can score if the top man markers are used on the other three). Today I saw it in action, but where has it been the whole campaign?
[Brief side note: Every time I see Ricardo Carvalho his hair keeps disappearing, yet I still look for his Super Mario bush running across the back line. Surely I can't be the only one...]
I was left scratching my head, trying to explain why a team this capable failed to break down inferior teams and score goals until today. Maybe part of it is misfortune, as I watched Babos deny Ronaldo from point blank on several occasions. But it wasn’t just today. If I were to tell you Cristiano Ronaldo has scored zero goals in WC Qualifying, would that be something you’d be interested in? None, nil, zero. Now would be the perfect chance for me to have a pop at Ronaldo, but I almost feel sorry for him.
This is his team, no doubt about it. No Luis Figo lurking in and out of the starting lineup or headlines of a “Golden Generation.” The Hungarian fans appeared to know only one song today and it was about Ronaldo (don’t ask me any other words). So the armband around his sleeve is undoubted by everyone. Then it hits me. That’s the problem. Everytime he got the ball he was looking to beat one or more defenders. When he lost the ball his hands immediately went up as if the game of football was suffering effrontery. Even if Ronaldo thinks he can win Portugal’s games by himself, it’s becoming clear that he cannot.
I’m tempted to look for a similar trend in Messi’s Argentina, but that’s another story for another day. What’s evident here is the over reliance on Ronaldo, and to my own amazement I’m again sympathizing with the Player of the Year. At Man United Ferguson built a team around him, but now Queiroz merely expects the supporting cast to admire Ronaldo pulling rabbits out of the hat. Watching Liedson childishly (he’s actually 31 in human years but nowhere close in football years) head the attack, I realized Ronaldo would do well to send Rooney a belated thank you card for all the tireless decoy runs and one-twos. With Portugal he goes it alone because that’s all he can do in the starting XI.
Today the narrow width of the pitch suited the Hungarians’ stifling of Ronaldo. Indeed it was his opposite number Balazs Dzsudzsak that looked the most creative, and it reflected in the match. So while Portugal got the result, Hungary will feel the more inspired by their performance. The two teams are tied for third place in the group on 13 points, with two games to play. Denmark leads the group with 18, and Sweden are second on 15. Second place in the group should be enough to qualify for a playoff, but the next two qualifying dates are essentially must wins for everyone.
I flipped over to check some other scores and saw the usual suspects. Riise scores for Norway, Baros scores a bunch for the Czechs, and Lampard scores a penalty. England and Spain book their tickets to the South Africa, and all seems right in the cosmos. Just one little Portuguese star yet to guarantee his place in World Cup 2010.
Only fair if I'm going to call Carvalho 'Super Mario'