After a disastrous World Cup campaign where Portugal failed to get out of first gear, many questioned were asked whether Paulo Bento should remain in charge. The former Sporting Lisbon coach has only been in charge since September 2010 but his time has been less than spectacular. Despite a positive start to his international managerial career, which saw him lead Portugal to the Euro 2012 semi finals only to be knocked out by eventual winners Spain, Portugal under Bento have struggled of late with the coach coming under some heavy criticism for his lack of imagination or formation flexibility. A dismal World Cup qualifying campaign which saw Portugal sneak into the tournament via the playoffs was followed by three underwhelming performances in Brazil. A 4-0 hammering by Germany, a nerve jangling 2-2 draw with the USA that relied on a late Varela header to steal a point and a weak 2-1 win over an even poorer Ghana side meant that Portugal crashed out of the group stages for the first time since 2002. Yesterdays shock 1-0 defeat to Albania in the first Euro 2016 qualifying campaign match could be the last straw for Bento and his tenure as Portuguese national coach.
Despite Portugal’s talisman and World player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo missing out, Portugal should have had enough to dispatch an average Albanian side but in the end struggled to break them down. A volley by Slavia Prague striker Bekim Balaj in the 52 minute was enough to give Albania all three points and victory over Portugal for the first time in six attempts. Already in a tough group that features Denmark and Serbia, Portugal needed to get off to a strong start ahead of next month’s crunch game against the Danes but now Portugal face an uphill struggle to get back on track. Albania to their credit stuck to a game plan, to frustrate Portugal on the ball and break through Roshi and Lenjani when possible. The tactics work for the side ranked 70th in the world, giving them a memorable victory and setting themselves up nicely for their next Euro qualifying group match ironically against Denmark, three days before the Danes face Portugal.
Whether Bento will be in charge for that match is still to be confirmed. The media has already been quick to hand down a death sentence to Bento but is it really his fault or are the problems that Portugal are going through out with his control? The biggest problem Bento has is a lack of depth in his squad. In years gone past Portugal had a wealth of talent they could call on – Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta and Joao Pinto to name but a few. However this recent batch of players lacks the flair and skill of previous batches. Yes Portugal’s starting eleven does feature Joao Moutinho, Pepe and of course Cristiano Ronaldo but beyond that the talent pool has dried up. Portugal is struggling to produce the same young talent as before, a direct result of the financial problems that the Portuguese Primeira League is facing. Dropping attendances and global interest in the league has lead to a reduction in the money coming into it and the ability for clubs to properly invest in the future. There are some that still do such as Sporting Lisbon and Benfica who are producing players for the national side but not to the same standard as before. For proof, we only have to look at the results of the Portugal’s Under 21 team who have failed to qualify for the Under 21 European Championships at the last four attempts. Even when they did qualify in 2006 and 2007, they struggled to make it out of the group stages. The last squad to progress and actually managed to finish in third place in 2004 featured the likes of Bruno Alves, Raul Meireles, Hugo Almeida and Jose Bosingwa. But the failures of the Under 21 sides since then are now showing in the full national team with a lack of talent for Bento to call on.
The good news for Portuguese fans is that the current Under 21 side, managed by Rui Jorge looks set to make it to the 2015 Under 21 European championships, giving hope that a new generation of players is just around the corner. However for Bento it may come too little too late as he tries to cling on to his job. The result against Albania was poor with several star players like Nani and Joao Moutinho simply failing to show up on the day. Too often his ailing side has leaned on the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to save them from themselves so when he is not in attendance; Portugal’s other star players don’t appear to know what to do. Bento as manager needs to take a firmer stance with the players he has at his disposal and whip them into shape. He needs to develop a plan B, one that doesn’t include Ronaldo in a starring role and develop it quickly. The cavalry is coming but until then Bento will have to manage with what he has, pull up his sleeves and push his team onwards towards qualification for Euro 2016. That is if he still has the job.