The myth of Cristiano Ronaldo
Spain booked their place in the quarterfinals today, with a comfortable 1-0 victory over Portugal. The score did not fairly reflect the balance of play, as Spain dominated the game from start to finish.
Portugal started the game with a very attacking line-up, with striker Hugo Almeida supported in wide positions by Cristiano Ronaldo and Simao. Yet Portugal's coach, Carlos Queiroz, sent his team out with one thing in mind: sit back and defend.
Portugal got 10 men behind the ball at every opportunity and looked to stifle the Spanish attack. Up until the 63rd minute, when David Villa finally broke the deadlock to put Spain ahead, the tactic worked very well. Spain were frustrated in their attempts to breach the Portuguese wall of defenders, and they were limited in their genuine goal scoring attempts.
The main problem for Portugal was that such a defensive mindset minimized the impact of their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Real Madrid star has rarely looked like re-creating his club form for his country at the World Cup, and it is no wonder given the tactics Portugal employed.
Ronaldo needs to play in a system that allows him to take advantage of his natural abilities. One of the most gifted wingers in the game, he has the speed, both with and without the ball, to glide past defenders. He possesses a fearsome shot, yet rarely gets the opportunity to use it from open play.
Queiroz needs to shoulder the blame for that, because his team is set up not to lose, rather than to win.
Some will argue that Portugal were outmatched against Spain, who have arguably the most complete squad of players at the World Cup. That is a legitimate argument, but it doesn't explain why Portugal employed the same tactics against Cote d'Ivoire, a far inferior team to Spain.
Others will argue that it is down to Ronaldo to have an impact on the game. I would counter that argument with the fact that football is a team game, and it takes a team effort to attack effectively, rather than relying on the skill of one individual.
Truth be told, when Portugal play tougher opposition, they rarely set up their team to try to win games, as they are much more content playing the role of spoiler. While this may be an effective strategy in the short term, it negates the impact of Ronaldo, and until Queiroz (or his eventual replacement) realizes this, I fear we will never see the best of Ronaldo while he is wearing a Portuguese jersey.
The quarter-finals are now set, and the matchups are as follows:
Uruguay vs. Ghana
Brazil vs. Netherlands
Argentina vs. Germany
Spain vs. Paraguay
Of the four games, the only one where I feel there is a clear favourite is Spain vs. Paraguay. The reigning European champions will have too much for the Paraguayans to contain, and I expect David Villa and company to progress to the semifinals.
The other three games are evenly matched, but since predictions are generally called for at this stage of the tournament, here is what I think:
Uruguay have only conceded one goal in the tournament, and they will prove to be a difficult opponent for Ghana. The front three of Suarez, Cavani and Forlan will handle the attacking responsibilities, while Lugano and Perez will provide the defensive steel. I would back them to end Ghana's World Cup adventure.
Brazil have a slight advantage over the Netherlands because they are stronger defensively than the Dutch. There is little to choose from between the attacking players from both teams, so the defensive strength of Brazil gives them the edge. That being said, this will be a very close game that could go either way.
As for Argentina, they are explosive going forward, but I fear for them at the back. They are weak in goal, and Sergio Romero does not inspire confidence in an already shaky back line. The Germans destroyed England, and I think that if they can contain Messi, Tevez and Higuain, they have an energetic midfield that can hurt the Albicelestes at the other end.