Wingers and a prayer enough for Portugal to prevail


IT HAD seemed as though the whole “Chelsea as plucky underdogs,” line might have had its last outing of these European Championships when Giovanni Trapattoni packed his bags and headed for home, but Raul Meireles has since been beating the same drum, with the midfielder claiming the Portuguese might somehow upset the apple cart by lifting the title here in 10 days’ time.

“Chelsea won the Champions League when nobody considered them as favourites,” he says in relation to the Londoners’ win over Bayern Munich. “When we began this tournament, nobody mentioned Portugal as one of the favourites. So the best example for me is what I experienced with Chelsea this year in the Champions League. If we manage to do the same it will the realisation of a dream.”

The 29-year-old is, to be fair, at least as entitled as the Republic of Ireland manager to cite the example of the club he plays for and it actually seems just a little more appropriate given the quality of some of the Portuguese players.

Still, the Czech Republic might justifiably feel aggrieved that anyone is trying to steal away their status as underdogs ahead of the first quarter-final this evening in Warsaw against opponents who many would have rated as having an outside chance of the title . . . as long, that is, as they made it out of a tough looking group.

Like the Irish, both of these teams lost their opening game of the championship, although clearly for each of them things improved markedly after that.

Of the two, the Czechs’ revival has, in its way, been the more impressive, if only because it was so much more unexpected. Michal Bilek’s side were awful against Russia in their first game and even after winning the next two to emerge as group winners, they arrive into the knockout stages as the only team to have progressed with a negative goal difference.

Bilek deserves credit for the way he has changed things slightly within the team and picked his players up in the wake of what looked like it might have been a crushing defeat.

The defence, in particular, has been reorganised and solidified, while the midfield has been re-energised, especially the wide men, Petr Jirasek and Vaclav Pilar, who have provided the team’s goals, and Tomas Rosicky, who has been at the heart of its attacking impetus.

The Arsenal player returned to training yesterday after three days back in Prague to have treatment for an Achilles tendon problem but still looks a major doubt for tonight, with Daniel Kolar on standby to come in, a switch that would most likely lead to a positional reshuffle in the middle of the field, where another of the squad’s most experienced figures, Jaroslav Plasil, is likely to be handed responsibility for directing things when the team are on the front foot.

He’ll need to do it well because tonight’s opponents showed against the Dutch just how they can make opponents pay for not making the most of possession.

Bert van Marwijk’s men had the ball at their feet for almost two thirds of their final group game and even managed to take an early lead.Having been impressive from the outset here, however, Ronaldo really hit his stride in that game and his two goals ensured both the team’s second victory and safe passage to the last eight.

For all the talk about the way the Greeks stunned Portugal in 2004 (they also beat the Czechs in the semis), the then hosts would probably have won both of their games against the eventual champions had they had a more effective striker.

Eight years on, not much has changed, with the veteran Helder Postiga not looking to be on a par with many of the front men playing for the major title contenders.

Each side of him, though, there is almost boundless attacking talent, with Nani as good as Ronaldo at times at unlocking defences, and the side has quality at the back too in the form of Pepe and Bruno Alves, who are likely to be shielded by the impressive Miguel Veloso, even if a tendency to leak goals – there has been only one clean sheet in their last 10 games – obliges the side to score themselves at a fair old rate in order to keep winning.

It will be an interesting, and potentially lively encounter. Neither side looks to be quite as good as they were back in 2004 and yet both – particularly the Portuguese – have shown themselves to be capable of turning in really big performances on their day. The fact Spain might well be waiting for the winners next week certainly makes that faculty vital.

On balance, Paulo Bento’s side should edge through but they won’t be getting carried away with themselves. After all, didn’t Chelsea show you can take nothing for granted in one-off big games? Petr Cech, we can safely assume, will have his team-mates well briefed on how supposedly far-fetched dreams can become a reality.