Cristiano Ronaldo’s second half hat-trick kept Portugal at the top of Group A, as they snuck past Northern Ireland, at Windsor Park.
Michael O’Neill opted to align his side in a 4-4-2 with Martin Paterson and Jamie Ward leading the line. Nile McGinn and Shane Ferguson played on the flanks, while Oliver Norwood and Steven Davis formed a midfield duo.
Paulo Bento didn’t make any major changes to his starting eleven – Vieirinha joined Helder Postiga and Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal’s attacking three. Raul Meireles, Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso formed a midfield three in Bento’s 4-3-3.
Northern Ireland started the match well, but disciplinary issues allowed Portugal to express their superiority over the hosts.
Bento instructed his men to sit off in a 4-1-4-1 without the ball, allowing Veloso to protect the back four, but keeping a solid foundation in front of the Portuguese back line. Portugal matched up well in midfield, Postiga worked hard to close down Northern Ireland’s centrebacks, while Vieirinha was instructed to protect Joao Pereira from being isolated on overloads – Chris Brunt and Ferguson were aiming to isolate the Portuguese full back.
The only flaw in Bento’s shape was the left side – seeing as Ronaldo was given a free role and less defensive duties – giving McGinn freedom to isolate, press, and get the better of Fabio Coentrao on several occasions.
Northern Ireland sat in two banks of four when Portugal was in possession, and disrupted Bento’s men from moving forward as a unit. Patterson worked hard to close down Pepe and Bruno Alves, while Ward pressed Veloso out of the match. With Ward sitting tight on Veloso, Portugal lacked a link between midfield and attack, which resulted in Moutinho and Meireles being anonymous in the first half.
This forced Pepe and Bruno Alves to become distributors, and they only found success when playing long diagonal balls to an advancing Coentrao, on the left flank. O’Neill’s tactical shape kept the Portuguese quiet when the match was 11v11, giving Northern Ireland a great chance to claim maximum points.
Portugal down the right
Although Portugal struggled to move forward as a unit throughout the first half, there was a recurring theme in their attack. The Vieirinha/Joao Pereira tandem on the right flank looked promising, and it was down to Vieirinha’s movement. The Portuguese winger found pockets of space in midfield to receive the ball and penetrate. This allowed Joao Pereira to get into advanced positions on several occasions, but the Valencia fullback’s delivery was poor.
Despite Pereira’s poor delivery, this constant move led to the corner that resulted in Bruno Alves’ calm finish, handing Bento’s men the lead. Vieirinha’s movement continued to threaten Northern Ireland’s defence, and resulted in Portugal’s best chance in the first half. Vieirinha dropped deep to receive the ball, and played a ball into Ronaldo who made a run into the channels. Ronaldo did well to hold up the ball and played in an advancing Postiga, who forced Roy Carroll to make a quality save.
Portugal’s right side was one of the few bright spots in their dire first half performance, and Vieirinha’s movement was vital.
Considering O’Neill’s men struggled to create clear-cut chances from open play, it was evident that they would resort to set pieces as their main attacking threat. Both of Northern Ireland’s goals came off corner kicks taken by Ferguson, and although his deliveries were superb, the defending from the Portuguese was diabolical.
Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans were the only players willing to attack the ball – making runs into a group of Portuguese players – and freely guiding the ball towards goal. In both scenarios, there wasn’t a Portuguese player attacking the ball nor was there one on either post. It was horrific set-piece defending from Bento’s men, and although Ward was offside for Northern Ireland’s second goal, the defending on both occasions was unacceptable.
O’Neill’s men replicated Portugal’s shambolic set-piece defending for Ronaldo’s equalizer. Kyle Lafferty allowed Ronaldo half-a-yard to make a run to the near post, and nod the ball past Carroll.
Set-pieces were a significant factor in the match, and both sides were exposed on a few occasions, which led to goals.
11v10 – 10v10 – 10v9
It’s not often that a match of this nature sees multiple dismissals, but in fairness, the referee’s decision was correct for every call, and it resulted in several pattern changes throughout the match.
Northern Ireland took advantage of possession when Portugal went down to 10 men, but they were unable to get behind the Portuguese backline. Bento’s men dropped into a 4-4-1 with Meireles on the left, tucking in to maintain a narrow midfield three, but keeping Coentrao vulnerable to overloads. Bento reacted to the issue by introducing Nani for Meireles and Nelson Oliveira for Vieirinha – two offensive changes that provided Portugal with more balance on the flanks, and an attacking presence to give Ronaldo more space to work with.
Portugal was handed a lifeline when Chris Brunt was rightfully sent off, for an awful challenge on Joao Pereira, warranting a second yellow card. With both sides down to 10-men, Portugal began to assert their dominance on the match. Veloso and Moutinho were now receiving time on the ball to spread positive passes forward, a rare feat in the opening 45 minutes.
Things went from bad to worse for O’Neill’s men in the 80th minute, as Joao Pereira was victim to another abysmal late challenge from Lafferty, which led to a straight red card, ending Northern Ireland’s chances of mounting a comeback.
Portugal struggled after Postiga’s dismissal, but Northern Ireland’s failure to take advantage of their spare man haunted them, as Portugal’s midfield took control of the match when O’Neill’s men lost their numerical advantage.
Ronaldo took all the plaudits at the end of the match – a 15-minute hat trick saw the Portuguese captain surpass Eusebio on the all-time scoring list. It was far from a vintage Ronaldo performance, but legitimate world-class players find ways to win matches, even when they aren’t at their best, and the Portuguese captain did so.
Ronaldo’s free role allowed him to drift around the final third, and find pockets of space to receive the ball, but he didn’t receive ample service, prior to Northern Ireland going down to 10 men. However, after Brunt’s dismissal, Ronaldo received more space to penetrate and find gaps to exploit on the attack. The Portuguese captain leveled the score with a sensational header from a corner kick, and he was left unmarked to nod home a Coentrao cross, subsequently.
Five minutes later, the Portuguese talisman made a great diagonal run, dragging a defender with him, which forced the Northern Ireland defence to foul Coentrao. Ronaldo stepped up and fired a deflected free-kick through a flimsy wall, and past Carroll to complete the hat trick.
One of the strengths to Ronaldo’s game is finding and exploiting the weakness in the opposition’s backline, and although it took a red card to do so, the Portuguese captain once again, saved his side from an embarrassing result.
Portugal once again reverted to doing things the hard way, but was tactically stifled until Brunt’s sending off, which led to Portugal’s dominance.
O’Neill’s men coped well throughout the match, but their lack of discipline led to their downfall. Ward and Patterson worked hard to prevent Veloso from dictating the tempo of the match, while their teammates kept a compact shape, and stayed organized. Although they won’t be heading to Rio next year, they showed that they are capable of competing against superior opposition in Europe.
As for Portugal, they climb to the top of Group F with a game in hand, as they look to avoid another World Cup Qualifying playoff visit. Most importantly, once again Portugal produced a mediocre performance, relying on sending offs and second half heroics from Ronaldo.
As good as the Portuguese captain is, international honours are won based on team performances – a feat that hasn’t been consistent under Bento’s tenure. He’s developed a pinch of loyalty to his senior players, thus depriving younger talent the opportunity they deserve. But, as Bento’s tenure continues, Portugal finds different ways to gain victories, and at the moment, that’s all that matters.