Preparation is a basic precondition in every mission people set out for. You also need a bit of luck, lots of emotional attachment and the desire to achieve. Everything was there at the right dose for Portugal on Wednesday night when they moved a win closer to their dream of joining the footballing elite.
The country for which Eusebio played and lit up the 1966 World Cup was never among the heavyweights before that. It didn’t become one afterwards either, despite winning the World Youth Championship twice (1989, 1991) and reaching the European Championship semi-finals in 1984.
There were glimpses of rare class in Portugal’s run up to the Euro 2000 semi-finals but now they have added muscle, brain and passion to that flamboyance. The inspirational Luis Figo and his teammates have been rewarded with a chance to take a crack at a title, which will elevate their status in world football.
Portugal outplayed The Netherlands, who enjoyed early possession but were not allowed the space or openings to capitalise on that. After this period of caution, Portugal started asking the questions. They were direct, well thought and sharp, with Deco masterminding most of them.
The sight of Figo speeding down both flanks — his low crosses slashing through the Dutch defence — will remain the most long-lasting memory of this match, yet it can’t devalue the non-stop hustling and bustling for 90 minutes by nine Portuguese players (goalkeeper Ricardo and striker Pauleta/Nuno Gomes excluded).
In defence as well as in attack, Portugal had at least two men more than what The Netherlands could mobilise. Physically it was very demanding, pressing and chasing all the time, tackling in the opponent’s half, even towards the end. It’s called ‘whole-court pressing’ and Scolari’s team did executed that to perfection.
This cohesion was what the Dutch missed. They suffered also because Van Nistelrooy was left far too lonely up front. Even Portugal played with one striker, but Pauleta often had two to three players within 15 yards of himself when his team reached the Dutch penalty box. Van Nistelrooy had none within 30 yards and this explains why there was such a huge difference between the number of shots at goal by the two teams.
One rarely sees so many genuine openings in a semi-final of a major tournament. It could easily have been 6-2 had Portugal not fumbled with those tap-ins. The speed and skill involved in most of these Portuguese counter-attacks undid the Dutch with an old horse galloping around so manfully.
For Figo, it was a personal matter too, apart from the desire to achieve what many thought the golden generation of Portuguese football was capable of. He was hurt after being substituted in the previous game and it showed in the way he cut in from the right to rock the far post with that left-footed curler. The veteran’s zeal to win inspired his teammates, which can be a huge factor in such high-voltage contests.
This collective effort made the difference between the teams. The Dutch were beaten fair and square in the midfield. They failed to contain the Portuguese, who moved up and down in numbers, and there was no surprise element in their own forays.
They relied too much on Robben, who was kept quiet on the left flank by Miguel, and the right wing was practically non-functional. Dick Advocaat’s team resorted to high balls from the deep towards the end, hoping to jostle with the defenders and find an opening, which was too predictable a ploy. Their best chance came from a left-flank cross that bounced twice on its way across the goalmouth, and rolled out with no Dutch player managing a touch.
This has been the problem with the Dutch for some time, which has prevented them from winning anything big, though they have some good talent. There was something wrong in their plan too, because of which a striker of Van Nistelrooy’s calibre was left unused. The Netherlands will struggle in the recent future since most of their experienced players are nearing retirement.
The Portuguese can afford to think about it later. The mental strength and fervour they have shown so far characterises winners of major titles. Having come this far, they have the right to believe they can match the Czechs — the best team in the tournament so far, and by a distance.
WHY SCOLARI is a winner...
Luiz Felipe Scolari is like a war-time general, who gets going when the going gets tough. The following is a quick look at what makes him different from other coaches:
m His assessment of a player’s ability and reading of the situation is excellent. He knows whom to use, for how long and what needs to be done.
• He is non-compromising and doesn’t start a job until and unless everything that he wants is in place. This could backfire sometimes but Scolari’s success with Brazil and Portugal affirms that what he thinks is right.
• He has combined experience and class with zest and freshness in this Portuguese team. The likes of Rui Costa and Fernando Couto are mostly on the bench, but Scolari has kept them in the thick of things with bursts of intense exposure and their experience has paid him dividends.
• His decision making is spot on. He makes surprising changes and they click. This means he gains confidence and knowledge from each move, which encourages him to effect more such changes.