By Mark Robinson
In the first critical game of Euro 2004, hosts Portugal face Russia at Lisbon’s new and impressive Estadio da Luz on Wednesday.
With both sides suffering opening day defeats, a defeat for either team this evening will end their dreams of advancing to the knockout stages.
For the Portuguese, such a scenario was unthinkable before Greece shattered their best laid plans in the tournament’s biggest shock on Day One of Euro 2004. Eighty four per cent of the Portuguese TV audience tuned in to witness their team’s demise and, with Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari under enormous pressure to deliver this evening, the public awaits the game with bated breath.
Russian expectations were far humbler before the tournament began, especially after the draw grouped them with Portugal and Spain. They will, however, be eager to avoid the ignominy of being the first team at the finals to be eliminated. At the very least coach Georgi Yartsev will be determined to take the issue of qualification right through to the final round of group matches.
For Scolari, the pressure has become all consuming. His reputation is on the line, together as is the faith invested in him by his adopted country. While the mourning over Saturday’s disastrous result against Greece appears to have temporarily subsided in Portugal, it will be nothing compared to what defeat this evening could bring.
In his favour is his experience, particularly under pressure. Coach of the Brazilian national team is arguably the most pressurised job in world football and, despite initial reservations about his style of play, the Brazilian public eventually warmed to him as his team won their fifth World Cup in Korea and Japan.
Much of the media criticism over the Greek defeat centred around ‘Big Phil’ and his team selection. Deco, the naturalised Brazilian who has been Scolari’s gift to the Portuguese team, was left on the bench for the opening game. Rui Costa, a feted member of Portugal’s so called ‘golden generation’, was included at Deco’s expense in spite of a dip in form over the last two seasons.
After an initial period of scepticism amongst players and press alike, due to his Brazilian roots, Deco has finally been accepted into the Portuguese fold and a start for him this evening is now expected. His performances in the Champions League helped Porto to win the European Cup this season and have sparked rumours of a big money move to either Chelsea or Juventus.
“If the coach thinks that putting me on the bench is the best thing for the team then I will give my support to Deco,” claimed Rui Costa, whose place is most under threat from the Porto star.
“There has always been a good relationship between us and Deco is one of the best attacking midfielders in the world.”
More than anything else, Portugal on Sunday looked like a team that has spent the last two years playing friendly matches, and changes will be made in an attempt to spark a change in urgency and attitude. Exactly what these changes will be, Deco aside, will remain a mystery until shortly before kick off.
“There will be some changes to the team for tomorrow’s match, but they will only be made public a few hours before kick-off,” Scolari told the press yesterday afternoon.
“I will change some players’ positions and maybe some other things,” he said.
Scolari insisted that after a difficult few days his players have emerged from the trough of depression caused by Saturday’s shock result.
“The players are in a good mental state despite the defeat. The day after the match they thay had their families families with them and it helped them regain their focus,” he revealed.
“Today my players are in a good mood and you can be sure they will be even happier tomorrow.”
Other mooted changes suggest that Manchester United teenager Cristiano Ronaldo could replace Benfica’s Simao in the starting eleven. Ronaldo came on for Simao at half time against Greece and, despite giving away the penalty that made it 2-0, he scored Portugal’s late consolation goal and was arguably their brightest player.
Further speculation surrounds the role of Fernando Couto, who has come in for much criticism from the Portuguese press in the aftermath of the Greece debacle. Scolari is unlikely to leave out one of his most experienced players for such an important game, despite the rapid rise this season of Porto’s Nuno Valente.
Speculation aside, Scolari knows that his team really must win ahead of their clash with arch rivals Spain on Sunday.
“We have to win,” he said.
“What did Spain beat Russia by ? 1-0. Would coach Saez have been happier with 15-0? Of course. But even half-nil would be good enough for us, anything else would be a bonus.”
Russia’s preparations for this evening’s game have been shrouded in controversy following the expulsion from their squad of playmaker Alexander Mostovoi.
The 65-cap Celta Vigo midfielder was sent packing by coach Yartsev after publicly criticising his training regime in a Spanish newspaper. With Igor Titov suspended after failing a drugs test and Roman Sharanov also suspended after a red card against Spain, Yartsev’s options are decidedly limited.
Yartsev has been quick to play down the impact that Mostovoi’s sacking will have on the squad.
“We have played without Mostovoi before and he did not feature in our playoff victory over Wales, so do not pay too much attention to his absence,” he told the media.
“For some reason people believe he is the biggest star in our team. I don’t believe that.”
“Mostovoi got overconfident and rates himself too highly. Mostovoi is not a star. Smertin and Alenitchev are our stars.”
Yartsev also insisted that the suspension of Sharonov would not leave him short of options in defence.
“We still have Aleksandr Anyukov and Aleksei Bugayev and we will be evaluating their form.”
Chelsea’s Alexei Smertin, who spent the 2003-04 season on loan at Premiersip club Portsmouth, has been converted by Yartsev from defensive midfielder to centre half. It will be he whom the Russians will rely on more than anyone else as they seek to nullify the Portuguese, who Yartsev tips to come out with all guns blazing.
“It would be stupid to believe that Portugal will sit back in defence waiting for us to come at them. Doubtless, they will have more possession, while we will rely on the counter attack,” he explained.
“Our tactics will largely depend on Portugal’s tactics, but I can say that Figo will get some special treatment.
In midfield, Dmitri Loskov of Lokomotiv Moscow should replace Mostovoi, while Andrei Karyaka should start on the left of midfield. A young star in his homeland, Karyaka is hoping to use the tournament to showcase his talents and secure a lucrative move to England, his dream desitination.
There is no doubt that the much vaunted striker Dmitri Bulykin was ultimately disappointing against Spain but Yartsev has been quick to defend his prodigious forward, blaming instead his midfield for their failure to support the lone striker. Dmitri Sychev may be pushed forward to offer Bulykin some support further up the pitch.
If Russia cannot secure three points tonight they will break the competition record of eight matches without a victory. The players have promised to fight to the death, but are certainly wary of the Portuguese and also the stifling conditions.
“We will fight until the very last second, as long as our hopes of qualifying are still alive,” says defender Dmitri Sennikov.
“However, the climate is a bit tough for us. You saw the first game against Spain when even they tired after half an hour. Attacking for 90 minutes in such conditions is a bit optimistic. For me, the heat is too oppressive.”
– Portugal: Ricardo; Paulo Ferreira, Rui Jorge, Fernando Couto, Jorge Andrade; Maniche, Costinha; Figo, Deco, Ronaldo; Pauleta
– Russia:: Ovchinnikov; Sennikov, Bugayev, Smertin, Evseev; Karyaka, Loskov, Aldonin, Alenitchev; Sychev; Bulykin
Terje Hauge (Nor)