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FIFA World Cup 2022: Portugal is not Argentina or Germany; Ghana's defeat shifts the focus

The win against Ghana changes the narrative surrounding Portugal and will make people sit up and take notice.

November 25, 2022 / 12:00 PM IST
Portugal vs Ghana. (Photo: Twitter)

Portugal vs Ghana. (Photo: Twitter)

Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo were back to business in their 3-2 win against Ghana at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. While they were troubled in bits and parts by Ghana in a continued pattern of less fancied teams making everyone sit up and notice, they got the job done with an air of professionalism, despite it looking laborious at times.

Ronaldo became the first player to score in a fifth consecutive World Cup, but this win was not just about his ridiculous ability to create and break records. This was down to Portugal being more than the sum of its parts. It was as much a passing of the baton from Ronaldo to the likes of Rafael Leao who scored their third, as it was proof of their captain’s continued influence on his national side in high-pressure situations. But equally running the show against Ghana was Bruno Fernandes, who created two goals with some delightful passing.

He first found Joao Felix who made it 2-1 with a dinked goal and then set Leao up for an excellent finish. The 23-year-old has scored seven and assisted nine goals already this season for AC Milan and his composure on the ball was the exact opposite of Ronaldo’s urgent but inaccurate finishing from open play. He took three minutes to score his first World Cup goal and there could be more. Portugal in possession were sometimes short of ideas, and slow in their build-up, but on the break, they looked threatening, a blur of technically adept red and green shirts.

Giving creative players like Fernandes and Otávio protection are Ruben Neves, Ruben Dias, and the constantly available Joao Cancelo. His Manchester City teammate Bernardo Silva is a player who can probably play anywhere on the pitch. Fernandes was the most fouled player (4), made the most key passes (3), and did not mis-control a single ball. He had a flawless game.

This is probably the kind of midfield which makes those like Ronaldo and Felix, who have had poor seasons with their clubs, thrive. Felix hasn’t scored in the Champions League this season and does not have a goal in 10 La Liga appearances. Asked to play a more central role by Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone, he seemed liberated under Portugal’s Fernando Santos in a wider role with more freedom to roam forward.

But this is a young team that will also make mistakes. Ghana will be aggrieved about the decision to award a penalty to Ronaldo, but they blinked twice after equalising and paid the price almost immediately. Portugal, just like they did at Euro 2016, will want to invite opponents at them before breaking forward. But this side has enough potential to break down teams as well. Santos prefers a lower tempo with the midfielders staying in a mid-block which acts as a buffer against a press and allows the fullbacks to go forward. Cancelo and left-back Raphael Guerreiro attempted a combined nine crosses in comparison to the wingers who attempted just three in the entire game.

With Uruguay and South Korea playing out an entertaining draw, Portugal have put themselves in the driving seat to get out of a tricky group. They take on Uruguay next, who will be desperate to forget their missed chances. Ronaldo’s goal will steal the headlines as usual — he has now scored in 10 consecutive major international tournaments — but Portugal’s collective mentality was the real winner. It was important for the side to put to bed the fiasco of his interview which eventually led to his second departure from Manchester United. He has done that by scoring a penalty. But the other player who was also relieved of the awkwardness surrounding his now former clubmate was Fernandes. The win against Ghana was a shift of focus, a win to change the narrative surrounding Portugal, and a win to make people sit up and take notice.
Pulasta Dhar is an independent sports journalist and football commentator. He tweets @TheFalseNo9
first published: Nov 25, 2022 11:52 am