France 2-1 Portugal
The Fernando Santos era of the Portuguese National Team kicked off with a 2-1 friendly loss on Saturday, as goals by Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba were enough to ward off a Ricardo Quaresma penalty strike at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis.
The match played out in a way that could best be described as a tale of two halves with France completely dominating a disjointed, unfamiliar Portugal side in the first, and Portugal finding their footing and giving France a go in the second. Given the nature of the contest, and the number of changes Santos made on his debut, such a script might’ve been expected.
Santos, whose 8-match ban permitted him to be on the touchline of this non-competitive fixture, only retained five players from the starting XI which saw Portugal drop their opening Euro 2016 qualifier to Albania 1-0 at home last month: Rui Patricio, Pepe, Joao Moutinho, Nani, and Andre Gomes. With the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Alves – who both recovered from their injuries to start once again – the rest of the starting lineup had their work cut out for them to fit in.
Changes to the starting XI included: Eliseu coming into the squad taking up the LB position, earning his first cap in three years; Tiago Mendes taking over for William Carvalho at DM, earning his first cap in four years; Cedric earning his first cap ever at senior level replacing Joao Pereira at RB; and Danny starting at LW, earning his first cap in 12 months. The latter inclusion proved to be the most interesting as it shifted Ronaldo from his usual position on the left of a 4-3-3 to the CF position, a change that most Portugal fans had been hoping to see for months.
The changes to the squad proved to be costly however, as France took advantage of a couple of lapses in concentration to find the back of the net, with the first one coming just minutes in.
The capacity French crowd was given a chance to raise its voice and wave its flags early on as France scored first at the 3’ mark. Mathieu Valbuena found a surging Antoine Griezmann down the left, his cross-goal ball finding Bacary Sagna, whose shot was stopped by Patricio, but only to be redirected to an open Benzema who hooked the ball home for a 1-0 lead. It was Benzema’s 25th international goal for France and really couldn’t have been easier as there were mounds of space surrounding blue shirts on the play.
The goal seemed to galvanize an already determined France side and leave a nervy Portugal side looking all the more rattled. Les Blues continued to boss the play and found themselves with another glorious opportunity four minutes later as this time Sagna found Griezmann to his right, only for him to ignore an available Benzema in the middle and fire straight at Patricio who made the save.
Portugal’s new faces on the flanks, particularly Cedric and Eliseu, struggled to cope with their counterparts all half, as Evra, Griezmann, Pogba, and Sagna routinely found space to maneuver and drive towards goal. In what was a match that barely resembled a friendly, France had come to play, and it easily could’ve been a two or three goal deficit at the break.
Some Things Never Change:
Despite the control France had maintained throughout the first half, Portugal did find themselves with a few chances on the counter. The first quality chance came courtesy a Ronaldo quick throw in to Danny in the 11th minute. The Zenit St. Petersburg man somehow found himself with time and space to shoot in the penalty area, but, he fired a scuffed shot high over the crossbar. It was the first such instance where France had been sleeping at the back.
The second came 10 minutes later as former FC Porto defender Eliaquim Mangala sent a poor clearance straight into the feet of an opportunistic Nani, who then cut inside the box on his left foot and sent a left-footed shot just wide of the post.
Gomes, who scored a stunner against La Liga champions Atletico Madrid last weekend, also found himself with a left-footed chance following a corner at the 27’ mark, but, he too fired high of the target.
But, without a shadow of a doubt, the big chance for Portugal to equalize in the first half came to Ronaldo, who, after being sprung on the left by Danny in the 41st minute, couldn’t make up his mind on what to do with the ball, thus losing it in his feet. The frustration was evident on the face of Ronaldo who had been dropping deeper and deeper into midfield to influence play.
By the latter stages of the first half, Portugal was beginning to come into its own, and, a couple of substitutes at half time saw the tide swing in Portugal’s favour. The two Carvalhos – Ricardo and William – found their way on the pitch and provided an immediate calming influence for the Selecao at the back.
Ronaldo found himself with what could easily be classified as the best Portuguese chance of the game on 51’ as he headed a sublime Nani cross towards the corner of the net, only to be brilliantly stonewalled by the fingers of Steve Mandanda. Minutes later, it was Nani himself who chipped one of William’s precise long balls in Danny’s direction, only for him to mishit his shot yet again.
Portugal had controlled possession and dictated play in the second half up until Santos’ second wave of substitutions – a wave which saw Eder and Quaresma introduced for his first cap since 2012 – when, following the break in play, Evra burst past Cedric and found Benzema, who then laid it off perfectly for Pogba to square it in the net. The goal, which came in the 69th minute, came very much against the run of play, and provided the second example of lax defending from Portugal on the night.
They were almost burned again as one minute later the Euro 2016 hosts nearly deposited a third on the night, with Blaise Matuidi just missing the corner of the net after finding his way around Moutinho.
Q has the A:
Just when it looked like there was nothing to be won from this match for Portugal, the enigma that is Quaresma decided to make the most of his opportunity.
In the 75th minute, a grand cross by Quaresma found the head of Danny, who found Eder in the box, who, in turn, bounced the ball to Ronaldo, who could only fire a shot against Raphael Varane and out for a corner.
One minute later and Ronaldo found himself substituted for Sporting starlet Joao Mario, who, in no time whatsoever, won a penalty off of Pogba. It was a debatable penalty for the Polish official Szymon Marciniak to award to say the least, as it appeared as though Mario tripped over himself more than anything, but, Quaresma coolly stepped up and bulged the twine to score his first goal for Portugal in more than six years.
There was more of a penalty shout five minutes later as Eliseu was brought down by Varane in the box, but, Marciniak opted to award a free kick just outside the area instead, perhaps to make up for the earlier penalty he awarded.
Although having ended the match in defeat, Portugal put forth a much better effort than they did in Bento’s last match against Albania. As the game wore on, A Selecao das Quinas appeared to grow in confidence and familiarity, which is to be expected with all the changes in the squad. Outside of a period where Portugal looked completely shell-shocked to start the match, and, a couple of horrendous defensive efforts, Santos’ men were quite decent and probably will feel as though they deserved a better result. Quaresma and Mario in particular provided quite the lift off the bench, and that should bode well for the future.
Portugal face Denmark on Tuesday in a Group I Euro 2016 qualifying fixture that should further reveal Santos’ plans going forward. They will be looking for their first points of the campaign.
Mandanda, Evra, Varane, Mangala, Sagna, Cabaye, (Sissoko, 71’), Valbuena (Payet, 58’), Griezmann (Schneiderlin, 84’), Matuidi, Pogba, Benzema (Gignac, 90’)
Patricio, Cedric, Pepe, Alves (Carvalho, 46’), Eliseu, Tiago (Eder, 68’), Gomes (William, 46’), Moutinho, Danny (Vieirinha, 85’), Ronaldo (Mario, 76’), Nani (Quaresma, 68’)
Quaresma (penalty), 77’