Referee is least of Portugal's worries


SOCCER:WITH CONCERN mounting that the genius of their petulant superstar Ronaldo won’t be enough to haul them through tonight’s semi-final against defending champions Spain in Donetsk, the Portuguese press has been cranking up the paranoia in the lead-up to the game.

The mood is not unlike the one Giovanni Trapattoni sought to foster in advance of the infamous trip to Paris a couple of years back when the Italian aimed to pile pressure on the Swedish match official by suggesting Fifa would want him to help the French through to the finals. That, of course, worked out very nicely for the Italian.

Now, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories doing the rounds in the Portuguese media over the decision by Uefa’s refereeing people to appoint Turkish official Cuneyt Cakir to oversee tonight’s game. The 35-year-old is not especially well regarded at home, it seems, and in one of the two games he has refereed at these championships so far, Ireland’s meeting with Italy, he did not exactly cover himself in glory. Yet he has been appointed again by a committee headed up by a Spaniard, Angel Maria Villar, prompting frantic headlines back in Lisbon like: “Cakir, a joker in the path,” “Portugal infuriated” and, (one that might get especially disillusioned Irish fans momentarily excited) “Trap for Portugal”.

The situation has not been helped, to say the least, by Michel Platini having suggested his preference would be for a Spain v Germany final, although if Cakir really is tempted to ingratiate himself he should take a moment to have a look at the sort of games Martin Hansson has been overseeing for the last couple of years because the Swede’s career is not quite what it was pre-Paris.

Slightly daft as the whole thing appears, the Portuguese can at least be forgiven for believing they have enough on their plates as they prepare to face next-door neighbours who just happen to be both the world and European champions, without having to concern themselves with the ability or impartiality of the referee.

Against the Czechs, Paulo Bento’s side were largely untroubled, getting to create so many scoring chances it started to become something of a statistical inevitability that at least one was going to be converted.

A defence built around the contrasting but complementary strengths of centre backs Pepe and Bruno Alves looked solid, although it went largely untested; Miguel Veloso impressed just in front of them in midfield, Joao Moutinho moved the ball about well and Fabio Coentrao got forward well down the left flank.

The key to the attacking side of their game, however, was the trio of Nani, Raul Meireles and, of course, Ronaldo, with the Chelsea midfielder responsible for much of the supply on which the two wide men were supposed to operate.

The midfielder, though, was far too profligate with the ball at his feet and the wingers’ conversion rate, one suspects, is going to have to be better against the Spaniards if anything more decisive than a long drawn out affair ending in penalties is to be aspired to.

We will also, it seems certain, have a better sense by the end of the evening of the quality of their 24-year-old goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, who is likely to be regularly tested over the course of the 90 minutes regardless of which formation Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque opts for this evening.

His inclination against the more menacing opponents seems to be to go with Cesc Fabregas in the deep-lying forward’s role before springing the pace of Fernando Torres from the bench. It is the array of talent around whichever one of them starts that is the more deeply intimidating thing, however, with the likes of Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez taking it in turns to steal the limelight in the games so far.

Xavi set a tournament record with the 133 passes he completed against Ireland, whom the Spanish collectively out-passed by a factor of four to one. Against Croatia it was about three to one and Italy two. France came closer to parity but not nearly close enough to pose a serious threat to the title holders’ supremacy and Portugal will have to do significantly better again which, unfortunately, is not the sort of thing that can be achieved by a handful of the team’s core stars and so they may struggle.

If so, then it will be a difficult evening, for the Spanish, even if not at their outstanding best against the stronger sides they have played here, exact a high price from teams who allow them the lion’s share of possession.

Helder Postiga is ruled out by injury and it would be tempting to suggest he won’t be hugely missed if it were not for the fact that Bento is not swamped with attractive alternatives.

Spain’s back four will not need to be told, however, it is not Portugal’s lone striker, whoever that happens to be this evening, who will pose the greatest threat to fulfilling Platini’s dream. The referee, meanwhile, could well be the least of Ronaldo and co’s problems.

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