Portuguese coach Scolari had announced on the eve of Wednesday’s game against Mexico that he would leave out all five players with a yellow card against their names. The quintet included Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo and Pauleta, besides two defenders.
Well, Scolari stuck to his guns. And almost paid the penalty. Mexico played their hearts out ' despite going two goals down within 25 minutes and losing a man in the 61st minute.
The Mexicans didn’t deserve to lose 1-2. Good they still qualified as Angola failed to beat Iran in the other match played simultaneously.
I know Portugal had already earned a ticket to the second round with two victories. I understand the coach had to take precautions vis-'-vis not losing key players for the knockout round.
Still, I would say Scolari took too much of a gamble in leaving out almost half his first XI. It showed his confidence on the bench strength, yet it was a move which could have backfired. Portugal, after all, needed to top the group to avoid a possible second-round clash with strong contenders Argentina.
Figo has been having a decent tournament, unlike some other superstars in their mid-30s. On Wednesday, he started off on a typically aggressive note but felt the lack of support as the minutes ticked by. In the end, I thought Figo ran out of steam and Scolari rightly took him off.
The Mexicans were slow to get off the blocks. And by the time they got a toehold on the game, Portugal had gone 2-0 up. Maniche, who had an impressive opening session, combined well with Simao before bulging the netting with a powerful shot.
Rafael Marquez, Mexico’s most celebrated player who was a member of the Champions League-winning Barcelona team, handled the ball to concede a penalty. Simao made no mistake. It could have been 3-0 inside the half-hour had first Postiga and then Tiago not missed the target.
The game took a turn around this stage with Portugal seeming to take the foot off the pedal and Mexico, needing a draw to ensure progress irrespective of the Angola-Iran result, pressing the accelerator.
Mexico came close when an Omar Bravo attempt brought out a fine reflex save from ’keeper Ricardo. Moments later, Jose Fonseca scored from a corner. It was a neat glancing header, but the Portuguese displayed poor positional play by not guarding the second post.
That was not Portugal’s solitary mistake in defence. The backline wilted under sustained Mexican pressure in the second half. Even after Mexico were reduced to 10 men ' when Luis Perez got his second yellow of the game for play-acting and claiming a penalty ' they camped in the Portuguese half long enough to create panic.
Ricardo had to be at his best to keep out a Pavel Pardo long-ranger. Miguel, the attacking right-back, then gave away a penalty with a handball. But Bravo blasted it wide. Bravo erred again, shooting over the crosspiece on the run with only Ricardo in front of him.
The equaliser remained elusive for Mexico, who had only themselves to blame for losing 1-2. Portugal had escaped defeat by the skin of their teeth.
Scolari looked a happy man, having won with a second-string side, but it could have easily gone wrong for him and affected team morale days before the first knockout round game.