Portugal never really do things the easy way. Do they?
When Paulo Bento’s side face off against Sweden on Nov. 15, it will mark the third major championships in a row in which they have been forced down the play-off route.
With the players at their disposal, they should have already sealed their spot at the 2014 World Cup. But a defeat to Russia, home and away draws against Israel, and a draw at home to Northern Ireland put an end to their automatic qualification hopes.
Portugal tend to impress against the world’s best while struggling against weaker teams, which is a theme entwined in not just their present, but their past also.
The country has always been blessed with talent. Eusebio and Luis Figo are just two of the greats to have represented A Seleccao.
But a major title remains elusive.
Now, with a two-leg play-off against Sweden standing between them and next summer’s World Cup in Brazil, Portugal must ask themselves the question they have struggled with throughout history.
How will we maximize the talents of our best player?
During qualifying, Cristiano Ronaldo found the net just four times. I use the word "just" because this is Cristiano Ronaldo we’re talking about.
The Cristiano Ronaldo who scored seven goals in three Champions League games this season.
The Cristiano Ronaldo who won the Ballon d’Or in 2008 before leading Manchester United to Champions League glory and who is currently considered one of the world’s best footballers.
The Portuguese star has set himself a high standards bar, and when pitted against teams like Luxembourg, Israel, Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan, you expect him to be bagging more than just four goals, three of which came in the one game.
At Real Madrid, Ronaldo has one focus: putting the ball in the net. It’s not fair to call him an out-and-out goalscorer because he contributes so much more to his side than a striker with an eye for goal, but at times you get the impression he is on a one-man mission to break every goalscoring record there ever was.
In 13 games for Los Blancos this season, he has taken 101 shots—per ESPN—which is an average of almost eight per game. In World Cup qualifying, he let fly with just 44.
For Portugal, and for manager Paulo Bento, it should be a case of less is more when it comes to Ronaldo’s role for the team. Right now he is trying to do too much, and as a result he is doing less of what he is best at—getting shots in and scoring goals.
When Ronaldo plays well, Portugal plays well. And when the skipper struggles, the team suffers. They're too reliant on his form.
The 28-year-old has a much better supporting cast around him than Zlatan Ibrahimovic does at Sweden, and Bento needs to utilise them more.
Joao Moutinho, Pepe, Raul Meireles, Fabio Coentrao and Nani all have the ability to make life easier for Ronaldo, and the manager needs to set up his stall in a way that benefits his star man.
At Real Madrid last season, part of Ronaldo’s success was due to the layout of the team. Angel Di Maria would hug the right touchline to spread the pitch wide, Mesut Ozil would pull the strings from the middle of the park, and Karim Benzema would occupy centre-backs with his strength and power.
Whenever opposition teams would try and exploit the space in behind Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho would switch things around to keep his star man focussed on going forward rather than backwards.
Every decision was made in order to create space for Ronaldo to work his magic.
Bento needs to do the same. He will help Ronaldo, and the team, by limiting his responsibilities and structuring the play towards his strengths.
In a recent Q&A with FIFA.com, Bento had this to say:
[Individual] players might win you the odd game, but you only win major competitions as a team. In my view, there’s no other way to approach things. Of course I’ve got huge admiration for talented players, but it’s a coach’s responsibility to harness that talent for the collective good. You have to use the best players at your disposal, with a view to assembling a team. There will be times when an individual turns one game or another, but over the course of a World Cup, a European Cup or a domestic championship, the best teams will win.
He will need to heed his own advice ahead of Sweden’s visit to the Iberian Peninsula.