From the home of Mourinho, Ronaldo and Xavier
To have a chance of reaching the World Cup finals, Portugal knew they had to win against Hungary on Saturday.
And guess what? They did so comfortably, 3-0, with a polished performance against a team that in all honesty is from a lower tier.
The 50,000 fans in Benfica’s Estádio da Luz saw goals from Simão Sabrosa (twice) and Liédson.
The buoyant mood was reflected in the strong applause for the naturalised Brazilian striker, known for his goals against Benfica, when he was substituted.
Also warmly received was Pedro Mendes. The Rangers midfielder replaced the suspended Pepe against Hungary and was one of the best players on the pitch – in what was only his third Portugal game.
Highly regarded at Porto, Tottenham and Portsmouth, Mendes must be one of the most underrated players in Europe.
An industrious and experienced midfielder, with good range of passing and capable of tackling and shooting, Mendes would be an astute inclusion in a squad which needs another defensive midfielder.
But while the players deserve praise, two other people also contributed to the nationwide post-match celebration: Jakob Poulsen and Sepp Blatter.
Poulsen scored what was probably the most popular Danish goal in Portugal ever.
Elsewhere in Group 1, the Aarhus midfielder’s long-range effort was enough to send Sweden to the defeat so vital to the Selecção's qualification hopes.
And with the Scandinavian derby over before Portugal’s game started, Carlos Queiroz’s played at a different time, Portugal started their match knowing they controlled their own destiny.
So despite many disappointing performances, Portugal are now odds-on for the play-off round, having one more point than Sweden with one match remaining – in Portugal’s case, at home to Malta, who have yet to score a goal in this group.
And so (probably) to the play-offs. Blatter is also heralded because two weeks ago FIFA, in a puzzling and unfair move, announced that countries in the draw would be seeded according to their world ranking.
Given that teams are already slotted into their qualifying groups according to past performances, it's harsh punishment for lower-ranked teams like Bosnia & Herzegovina or Republic of Ireland to be given an extra hurdle.
Even if this helps the Portuguese cause, a draw with no restrictions would have been the right choice.
About the play-off draw
There are nine groups in the European qualifying zone and only the eight best runners-up will be eligible for the draw.
Of these, seven groups are already sure to send a representative, even if the runners-up haven't been confirmed.
Group 1 is almost certain to take the other place unless Portugal lose to Malta, Albania win in Sweden AND Denmark beat Hungary, in which case Norway will be the extremely lucky recipients.
(In case you think it's unfair that Norway were in a group with fewer fixtures, results against the sixth-placed teams are removed from the comparison. Norway still lag behind.)
This means that fans are already trying to work out whether Portugal will be seeded in the play-off draw.
Already certain to finish second in their groups, and thus feature in the play-offs, are Russia, France, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Republic of Ireland.
Among those jockeying for the six remaining places are, in order of FIFA ranking: Croatia, Greece, Switzerland, Portugal, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Israel, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The four highest-ranked teams will be seeded. Russia and France are above Portugal and the chances are that either Switzerland or Greece – they are from the same group – will join that duo.
That leaves Croatia as Portugal’s rival for the last remaining seeded place – and the Croatians are currently in third, a point behind Ukraine, who play Andorra on Wednesday.
So it looks bleak for Slaven Bilic, and good for Carlos Queiroz.
So, assuming everything goes as expected, Portugal will be seeded and play against either Bosnia & Herzegovina, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia/Slovenia or Ukraine.
None of them will be an easy task and the Selecção will need to be at its best to book a flight to South Africa, but it's preferable to playing 2006 finalists France or Guus Hiddink's Russia, who until Saturday were only a point behind a rampant Germany.
And for the chance to avoid Russia, we can thank Sepp Blatter.
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I haven't really followed Portugal at all but don't you think that not having someone like FIGO on their squad is probably the main reason why they've had such a rough time at qualification? Players like FIGO come every once every twenty years... irreplaceable & a true warrior in every sense of the word.
I think its more to do with Queiroz's mismanagement but also due to the fact that there are very few players to choose from. In last weeks 8 games in the Portuguese top flight only 83 of the starting 176 were Portuguese. The league is winning with the improved quality but the National team is losing because there aren't enough players to choose from.
P.S. I just hope Ireland don't get Portugal. It'll just put me in a situation I don't want to be in. On the other hand it would guarantee a place in the finals. Ireland's manager Trapattoni has created miracles with probably the weakest squad Ireland have had in years.
Nice article Sergio.
I agree with you. Figo was a class act, on and off the field. He was respected as a captain and he could make the difference. We definitely need to find someone who can lead our current squad. As I've said before, I don't think Ronaldo should be that person (his personality is different), but there aren't many with that profile. Maybe Simão, maybe Ricardo Carvalho or even Bruno Alves...
Though we export a lot of players (Pauleta, Duda, Eliseu, Danny...), it is certainly a fact we will suffer because we're importing more and more instead of nurturing youngsters. We still have some window to create those players as Ronaldo, Nani and Pepe are quite young, but something will have to change in the way clubs are managed.
As for the playoffs, I'll tell you one thing. Slovenia would be my choice. Ireland is always tough at home and both Ukraine and Bosnia are unpredictable (and I'd like Bosnia to qualify because they had a great run in their group). Slovenia MIGHT be the weaker side, but then again, Portugal need to be fully focused to overcome the play-off round. It shall be interesting...
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