Portugal climb to the top of Group F with a narrow victory against Russia.
Paulo Bento made two changes to his Portugal side ahead of this monumental clash. Luis Neto replaced the suspended Pepe, while Portuguese winger Vieirinha started on the right flank, pushing Nani to the bench.
Fabio Capello’s men lined up in a 4-3-3 with Aleksandr Kerzhakov leading the line. Yuri Zhirkov and Vladimir Bystrov played on the flanks, while Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Viktor Fayzulin formed a midfield three. Russian playmaker Alan Dzagoev started the match on the bench.
Bento’s reactive approach in another must-win match proved to be pivotal, as Portugal’s pressing and quick transitions troubled Russia – and also nullified their attack.
In the past, Portugal has struggled to earn results when dictating possession in a match – frankly we’ve seen them at their best when they match up against top sides. Bento, not known for his tactical prowess, has witnessed his side display their best performances when they aim to nullify their opponents. Portugal were good with the ball, but their intelligent pressing and discipline without the ball arguably decided the match. Bento’s men had three different approaches when Russia had possession.
1) Throughout the match, mainly in the opening 20 minutes, Portugal pressed high up the pitch. Bento’s men were forcing Russia to concede possession in their third – Portugal’s transitions were quick and sharp, which left Capello’s back line under severe pressure. Helder Postiga pressed the centre backs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Vieirinha closed down the full backs, while Joao Moutinho stayed close to Denisov. Russia rarely broke past Portugal’s initial press, and were fortunate not to concede any goals after being dispossessed.
2) Bento’s men occasionally dropped into their own half and pressed the Russian midfield. When the Portuguese lost the ball, their defensive transition was impressive as they quickly adjusted into a compact shape. Portugal’s shape was vital – they sat in two banks of four limiting the space in between the lines, and Capello’s men were unable to find a passing outlet, often conceding possession to the Portuguese. Zhirkov dropped into central positions to receive the ball and run at defenders. Although it was somewhat successful, Portugal’s compact shape prevented Capello’s men from receiving the ball in dangerous areas.
3) Bento’s men pressed the Russian midfield when dropping into two banks of four. They relentlessly hounded the Russian ball carrier and Capello’s men squandered possession. Russia looked nervy when they were on the ball – Portugal worked quick transitions catching Capello’s men out of position, but they often lacked the decisive ball in the final third. Portugal’s pressing prevented Russia from building a passing rhythm – Moutinho, Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso worked admirably to win possession and Capello’s men often found themselves out of ideas when entering Portugal’s half.
It’s also key to highlight Russia’s shape when Portugal was in possession of the ball. In the opening minutes of the match Capello’s men pressed high up the field – although it was successful, they were unable to sustain that pressure. This forced Capello’s men to retreat into their half and defend in a 4-1-4-1.
Unlike their opponents, Russia failed to apply any significant pressure when Portugal held possession. They allowed Bento’s men to knock passes across the pitch from deep areas, but a major problem they encountered was that their shape wasn’t compact. Postiga, who had one of his better games for the national team, often dropped deep to receive the ball and link play with the midfield – he also scored the winner. Also, Moutinho, and Vieirinha when drifting centrally, often picked the ball up between the lines. The gaps between midfield and defence were large, and Moutinho was allowed to play incisive passes across the pitch.
Russia, as did Portugal, didn’t create many clear-cut goal scoring opportunities, but unlike Portugal, Russia failed to get into dangerous positions. Kerzhakov was an isolated figure, and Neto and Bruno Alves made easy of work of the Zenit St. Petersburg striker. The gap between Kerzakhov and the midfield was far too wide, and the fact that he failed to drop deeper to receive service was odd.
Ultimately, Russia lacked cohesion going forward – they needed a player who could link play between midfield and attack. It was quite peculiar to see Dzagoev on the bench for the entirety of the match – the Russian could drift into central positions from either wing and provide the creative spark that Capello’s men didn’t have. The few time Russia broke Portugal’s initial press, their attack was dull and their passing was slow. When Portugal sat deeper, keeping a compact shape, Capello’s men lacked a creative player to spread incisive passes in key areas.
As of late, Joao Moutinho and Pepe have been sharing the plaudits that Cristiano Ronaldo receives for the success of the national team – frankly those two men are equally as important to Bento’s side as the second best player in the world. Nevertheless, there’s another Portuguese midfielder that plays an integral role in Bento’s side. Miguel Veloso was superb against Russia – albeit with no players closing him down, the Portuguese midfielder controlled the tempo of the match.
Veloso, who sits deep in the Portuguese midfield, was allowed to play inventive passes across the pitch – most notably his delightful cross field pass to Vieirinha. His passing isn’t at the level of Xabi Alonso or an Andrea Pirlo, but the Dynamo Kiev midfielder is able to dictate the tempo of matches.
Veloso, also drifted to each flank, often the left, to prevent Russia from creating overloads against Fabio Coentrao. Opponents have targeted Coentrao over the past few years, as Ronaldo often plays higher up the pitch. Veloso, broke up play in the midfield, and provided defensive cover on each flank, giving Portugal a defensive balance they often lack.
Capello was forced to make two changes before half-time, Denis Glushakov replaced Fayzulin, while Aleksey Kozlov replaced Alexander Anyukov. Capello’s final change was introducing Fedor Smolov for Kerzhakov. Smolov reduced the gap between midfield and attack, but it didn’t make a difference as Portugal were in control of the match by then.
Bento’s changes were strictly player swaps, Nani’s introduction pushed Ronaldo to the middle, Ruben Amorim sat in midfield, while Custodio also made a late appearance.
Portugal’s victory keeps their World Cup hopes alive as they now sit two points ahead of Russia and three of Israel, with games in hand.
Capello’s men not only concede their first goal, but they lose their first match in qualifying. They were second best on the night, but many will question Capello’s tactics and his decision to keep Dzagoev on the bench. Considering the abundance of inferior opposition in this group, Russia are still favourites to automatically qualify for the World Cup – but performances of this nature may hinder their chances.
Bento went back to the basics – intelligent pressing, quick transitions and organized defending merited three points. Portugal didn’t create enough legitimate goal-scoring opportunities, but they took advantage of a defensive error on a set-piece. If they’re able to create and turn their chances into goals, the very least Bento’s men should achieve is a berth in the playoffs.