By Luis Mira | Portugal Expert
One could argue that it is an overstatement to say that tonight's Euro 2012 clash against highly-favoured Germany could not have come at a worse time for Portugal. But as Paulo Bento's 23-man party head into their first match in Poland and Ukraine, that is certainly the feeling, following the team's disappointing displays in the friendly matches which preceded the tournament.
Almost every big-name team at the Euros suffered a setback or two in the last two weeks, but the manner in which the Seleccao were brushed aside by a Turkey side who were twice overpowered by Germany during the qualifying stage is certainly disturbing, and has rung alarm bells all over town.
It is clear that the defensive problems which rocked Portugal's boat during the qualifying stages - when they conceded 12 goals in the group phase alone, more than any other side who qualified for the Euros - are still an issue, as the ghost of Ricardo Carvalho continues to haunt the team. Bruno Alves has had a hard time to get on the same page as Pepe, and in the full-back positions both Fabio Coentrao and Joao Pereira are more comfortable at pushing forward than at giving a helping hand to the two centre-backs.
||PONDEROUS PORTUGAL'S LAST SIX MATCHES|
||Lost 2-1 vs. Denmark
||Drew 0-0 vs. Bosnia
||Won 6-2 vs. Bosnia
||Drew 0-0 vs. Poland|
||Drew 0-0 vs. Macedonia
|June 2||Lost 3-1 vs. Turkey|
But Portugal's biggest problem lies in midfield, an area of the team which was virtually non-existent for most of the match against Turkey. Miguel Veloso compromised the game with a poorly-placed pass that assisted Umut Bulut for his side's second goal of the night, and also had great difficulty in containing the attacks of Abdullah Avci's men.
Indeed, such a performance from the 26-year-old, who cut a frustrating figure in the second half of the season at Genoa, has brought back memories of Pepe's time as a holding midfielder under Carlos Queiroz. However, Bento is a very pragmatic coach, so it seems very unlikely that he will risk removing a player from his natural position for such an important game without proper testing. And with Custodio - the other player in the squad who can be deployed in the No.6 position - having just one cap to his name, Veloso should get the nod to start in front of the defence.
Another major issue is the creativity - or lack thereof - of the other two players who complete this three-man midfield, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho. Deco continued the job which once belonged to Rui Costa in the Seleccao, but the Brazil-born midfielder's retirement from international duty has created a gap which no one seems qualified to fill. Moutinho is the closest thing to a No.10 in Portugal's squad, but the Porto man has been in disappointing form this season and he often slows down the pace of the attack to an excruciating level.
As Portugal prepare for their first match at the Euros, one cannot help but wonder that this is perhaps the least in-form side of the 'big-name' teams in Poland and Ukraine: apart from Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Rui Patricio, every other player in the squad enters this tournament on the back of a mixed season at his respective club. This is certainly not the best moment of the year for Paulo Bento to ask for improved performances from his men after a long campaign, but that is certainly what the 42-year-old will do, in order to prevent an early exit from the competition.
After five appearances in European Championships, Portugal have yet to bow out of the tournament in the group stage. But the feeling is certainly that the Seleccao may fall victim to the so-called 'group of death', which also contains Denmark and Netherlands. The fact is that the pre-Euro friendlies helped the coaches of the other three teams to solve any questions they could have, but for Portugal, these last two matches only served to bring more suspicion to a squad which has been criticised in some quarters for the light-hearted atmosphere within its ranks in the build-up to the event.
Portugal will need to considerably up their game, especially in the middle of the park, in order to contain the attacking flow of Mesut Ozil and Co. Otherwise, Germany will run riot and we will watch a repeat of the Euro 2000 group match between the two teams, but this time with Die Mannschaft taking the honours.
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