Fernando Santos will look to build on a sound start to his tenure in the Portuguese dugout ahead of a clash against Group I dark horses Armenia in the Algarve. Having come away with the three points in Copenhagen after a last-gasp Cristiano Ronaldo effort, A Seleção da Quinas will be confident of building on a professional display in their last hit-out in front of a packed Faro crowd.
Return of the old guard
Fernando Santos’ tenancy at the helm of the Seleção, albeit short, has been earmarked by the return of Portuguese veterans of a generation past. This has come in the form of Tiago, who came out of retirement last month, Ricardo Carvalho, making a return to the fold after a fall out with Bento in 2011, and most recently, Jose Bosingwa.
The latest trouper to come out of the international wilderness under Santos, the 32-year-old right-back has found himself playing regularly in the Turkish top flight with Trabzonspor. Indelibly experienced in the red of Portugal, and also having won the Champions League with Chelsea, Bosingwa, and his fellow veterans, may prove to be invaluable in the campaign to reach France, as underlined by Tiago himself:
“It’s a joy to have players of my generation back because we’ve had many good times together,” said the 33-year-old Atleti midfield lynchpin. “For younger players themselves it can also turn out to be important, because they see us as references.”
Not to be underestimated
Bernard Challandes’ Armenia may only have amassed one point from two games thus far, but with the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan in their ranks, another is possible. A side that has caused problems for the Seleção, having only narrowly lost 1-0 in Leiria and sharing the spoils at home during qualifying for Euro 2008, the much-improved Armenians will be confident of stifling the home side.
Led by skipper Roman Berezovski, obstinate between the big sticks, the Dinamo Moskva shot stopper will be hard to beat. Having made his debut for his national side against Portugal 18 years ago, Roman is wary of the hosts.
“It will be very hard for us, but Portugal also endured much difficulty in previous games against us,” said the 40-year-old who is set to win his 91st cap. “These are intelligent and strong opponents, but we know how to play football ourselves.”
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Spartak Moscow sharp shooter Yura Movsisyan are back in the fold having recovered from knocks, with the side close to full strength, except for the absence of Aras Ozbiliz. Nonetheless, the Armenians’ attacking potency will keep Ronaldo and co. on their toes, as they will need to take their chances and watch their backs when on the back foot.
Lethal on the counter, the Armenians will be vying to break their duck after giving up a 1-0 lead to Denmark in a tightly-contested tie. Severely depleted in the ensuing encounter against the Serbians, the home side were able to muster a draw before being humbled by the French 3-0.
Under the Fernando Santos Era, Portugal has adopted a formation that looks to accommodate for a shortfall in the striker department. In both games against France and Denmark, A Seleção’s formation was indicative of a 4-3-1-2, with a flexible front three. In this way, Ronaldo and Nani would play the furthest up the pitch, with Danny playing in behind, at times as a number 10 or false nine.
With this system implemented against fairly esteemed opposition, and taking into account the inclusion of another traditional striker in the form of Helder Postiga, and Éder finding some form for club side Braga; it would not be a surprise for Santos to change his system to offset a predictably stalwart Armenia defence.
Playing away against the group favourites, it is expected that the Armenians will be content to play for the draw in sitting back and playing on the counter with the likes of Mkhitaryan and Movsisyan in their attacking arsenal. Newly appointed gaffer Bernard Challandes will look to play five at the back, playing a 5-2-2-1 or 5-2-1-2 formation.
This tie will undoubtedly shed some light on Santos’ tactical flexibility in terms of formation and personnel against the tenacious Armenians who will feel hard done by having struggled to amass points after impressive displays against Denmark and Serbia.
In this way, Santos will no doubt be tempted to throw on a more versatile midfield, proactive midfield sans William Carvalho, with Adrien Silva, João Mario and Andre Gomes viable options. Also, a string of injuries at left-back will give bear an opportunity for either Tiago Gomes or Raphael Guerreiro to make their debut.
One of Bento’s greatest criticisms was his rigid tactical mindset and stalwart use of the 4-3-3 against the world’s best and worst sides, regardless of the occasion. Having competed against fairly revered opposition, this tie will shed some light on Santos’ tactical stringency against an Armenian side expected to ‘park the bus’ and hit the Portuguese on the counter.
A side not too different to the same Albanian side that led to the sacking of Bento in terms of their system, Challandes’ side poses more attacking potency that will duly test the Portuguese defence. Based on quality alone, A Seleção das Quinas should come at the victors at a canter; but such a result is unlikely based on an inability to break down stubborn defences, seen with previous results between the two sides in rather cagey encounters.
Armenian’s quality in the middle of the park and in the final third, as well as a Portuguese side in transition, has levelled the tie a smidgen; but the sheer quality of the home side coming off a grinding victory over the Danes, and renewed vigour breathed into the camp with Santos’ presence in the dugout should be more than enough to secure the three points.
PortugalFutbol Prediction: Portugal 2-0 Armenia