Portugal 2 Netherlands 1: Lessons from a Ronaldo-inspired victory
What did we learn from Portugal's 2-1 victory over Holland in Group B as Paolo Bento's side reached the last eight?
Van der Vaart makes his point
Rafael van der Vaart had criticised manager Bert van Marwijk after his exclusion from the starting line-up for Holland’s opener against Denmark. The Dutch suffered a 1-0 defeat, and the Tottenham star was only afforded a brief 19-minute cameo to help his side try to rescue a point. With emotions running high, as they tend to do in the Dutch camp at major tournaments, Van der Vaart claimed Van Marwijk had “certain preferences” and the midfielder was not part of the manager’s plans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Van der Vaart was omitted from the starting line-up for their subsequent 2-0 loss to Germany, but emerged for the second half with the captain’s armband – Mark van Bommel made way. It was inevitable, with the Dutch needing to win by two clear goals against Portugal, that Van der Vaart would be handed a starting berth, not least for the additional threat he provides to a midfield already bursting with attacking talent. The 29-year-old responded in emphatic fashion, curling a sumptuous shot past goalkeeper Rui Patricio in the first half. Van der Vaart came close to adding a second after the interval, with another sublime effort smacking the woodwork, denying the Dutch a vital goal. For Van Marwijk, there will be much to reflect on following a dismal European championship, and he will certainly rue his decision to leave out Van der Vaart – in good form as opposed to Wesley Sneijder, who has endured a difficult season at Internazionale.
Dutch punished for inflated egos and defensive approach
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was often criticised during the 2010-11 season for playing two holding midfielders despite the plethora of attacking options at his disposal. Ironically, it was Nigel de Jong who often partnered Gareth Barry in that role, but this season, Mancini opted to embrace a more expansive outlook, dropping the Dutch midfielder. Come May, City were crowned Premier League champions for the first time. Unfortunately for Van Marwijk, he opted to adopt Mancini’s approach for Euro 2012. With a squad boasting such exciting players like Ibrahim Afellay, Arjen Robben, Sneijder, and Van der Vaart, the Dutch coach always faced a difficult task accommodating all his stars. But starting Van Bommel alongside De Jong at the expense of Van der Vaart was overly cautious, especially against Denmark – the perceived weakest team in Group B. Perhaps it was an indication that Van Marwijk had little faith in his back four – and admittedly not without reason – but starting the midfield duo undoubtedly undermined their greatest strength – attacking talent to savour. Add into the mix a team heaving under the weight of inflated egos, and the overrated Dutch were always going to struggle at this tournament, lacking balance and bereft of team spirit. It is no real surprise to see them make a premature exit at the group stage. Will Van Marwijk be afforded another two years to unravel the Dutch conundrum ahead of the World Cup in Brazil?
Ronaldo plays captain’s role for Portugal
On the subject of egos, Portugal certainly have an interesting collection of their own, but there is no doubting who the key man is in Paulo Bento’s side. The greatest players thrive under pressure, and a thoroughly underwhelming start to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Euro 2012 campaign led to inevitable questions over the Real Madrid forward’s big-game temperament. But Ronaldo brushed aside any lingering doubts with a big performance against the Netherlands, capped by an impressive brace. The 27-year-old was in an unplayable mood, akin to his club form that resulted in 46 La Liga goals, with the forward attacking right-back Ron Vlaar on a frequent basis. The entire Dutch defence struggled to cope with the Portugal captain. Ronaldo came close when he directed a powerful header goalwards, but Maarten Stekelenburg managed to beat the effort clear. It was a warning shot but the Dutch took no heed. Joao Pereira’s perfectly-weighted pass was collected by Ronaldo, and he caressed his finish past Stekelenburg in the 28th minute. Ronaldo then doubled his tally 15 from time. The Dutch threw bodies forward as they desperately searched for a goal to keep their Euro 2012 hopes alive, but a rapid Portuguese counter-attack saw Nani feed a delightful pass into Ronaldo, who deceived Vlaar with a smart cut-back, before finishing from close-range. In the closing moments, the Portgueuse skipper came close to scoring a hat-trick but was denied by the woodwork.
How far can Portugal go?
Portugal’s reward for their 2-1 victory over the much-fancied Dutch is a quarter-final against the Czech Republic. A Ronaldo-inspired Portugal should ease into the last four, where they will expect to face Germany – and Bento’s men would certainly be underdogs against Joachim Low’s side. While Bento has found a balance between attack and defence – take note Van Marwijk – the Germans will be an incredibly difficult obstacle to navigate past. But if they manage to complete this remarkable feat, the prize could well be a final date against Spain. It is a fixture which could suit Portugal. Vicente Del Bosque’s side play in a manner which imitates Barcelona – largely possession-based with pressing high up the pitch. Real Madrid trio Ronaldo, Pepe and Fábio Coentrao faced Barcelona on six occasions this season, and enjoyed relative success, winning the title showdown at Camp Nou in April. Furthermore, Raul Meireles was part of Chelsea’s midfield that frustrated Pep Guardiola’s side home and away. Nani and Ronaldo could punish the holders who are less than assured in defence – questions marks linger over Gerard Pique’s form and Carles Puyol is absent through injury. So while Bento’s men will not receive the same lip service as Germany and Spain, Portugal will be outsiders to lift the trophy on 1 July, and Ronaldo may yet avenge that Euro 2004 final defeat.