Paulo Bento’s record since taking over as Portugal coach is an impressive one. Eight wins, five of them consecutive, in 11 games, with 30 goals scored.
Statistics such as those would be enough to please any coach, though not Bento, whose side narrowly missed out on a direct ticket to UEFA EURO 2012 and now face Bosnia-Herzegovina in the play-offs, where defeat would leave the Portuguese without a place at the continental finals for the first time in 20 years.
The situation is somewhat typical of Bento’s topsy-turvy reign, which began when he took over from Carlos Queiroz last September. Dispelling the doubts raised by Portugal’s patchy showing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the new coach oversaw an encouraging run of results, which included a 4-0 friendly defeat of world champions Spain.
Yet just when the Portuguese seemed to have regained their poise and prestige, along came Denmark, who consigned them to a 2-1 defeat in the final game of their EURO 2012 qualifying group and an unwanted place in the play-offs.
That unexpected reverse, in a game Bento’s men only needed to draw, triggered media criticism for the coach. In contrast, however, the players are rallying round the former international midfielder as they prepare for the two-legged decider with the Bosnians, among them Hugo Almeida.
“Paulo Bento’s doing a great job with the national team,” the big Besiktas forward told FIFA.com. “The players understand where he’s coming from and everything’s going nicely.”
“These things happen,” continued Almeida, in reference to the setback the Portuguese suffered against the Danes. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good day for us and Denmark did what they had to do to get the win. When all’s said and done, I think it was a very good test of how the team is developing, even if the result has checked our progress a little.”
Men on a mission
After the highs and lows of the last few months, Bento and his players are hoping for less of a rollercoaster ride when they take on the Bosnians, whom they beat 2-0 on aggregate two years ago to secure their place at South Africa.
A repeat of the 1-0 away win they secured then will suit the Portuguese just fine when the two sides meet again in Zenica on Friday evening. Their hosts are in high spirits, however, following their excellent showing in a difficult group and last month’s valiant 1-1 draw against section winners France in Paris.
“Bosnia are a very strong side with some excellent players and they know more about us now,” added Almeida. “There’s no doubt it’s going to be more nerve-wracking than in 2009, and they’ll be out for revenge.”
Like Fabio Coentrao and Pepe, Almeida featured in the 2009 tie against the Balkan side but missed the trip to Denmark. And like the Real Madrid duo, he has now been recalled to the squad for what is the biggest game of Bento’s tenure, one in which their experience will be valuable.
“It’s a tough place to play. It’s a small ground, the pitch is not the best and the fans put a lot of pressure on you. That’s going to make it tough but at least we know what to expect,” explained Almeida, who is pleased nevertheless that Portugal will be at home in the second leg, unlike two years ago. “It’s an advantage for us. They need to get a result at home and that’s where we might be able to surprise them.”
A brighter future
That kind of confidence is essential if Portugal are to move on from their calamity in Copenhagen and set the seal on a promising first year for Bento, who is hoping to stay in the post for some time yet, at least through to Poland and Ukraine 2012.
“The team’s done some really good things lately,” said the strapping Almeida, rounding things off. “I think we’ve got enough quality and experience not just to get through, but to kick on and go a long, long way at the European finals. I’ve got a lot of faith in this generation of Portugal players.”