Top spot in Group D of the 2006 FIFA World Cup is up for grabs this afternoon as finals regulars Mexico and Portugal meet for only the second time at the 52,000 capacity Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen.
Portugal’s 100% record sees them at the top of the group, while Mexico may even be afforded the luxury of being able to lose today and still claim the crucial runner-up spot that would result in their progression. Only a heavy loss, coupled with a win for Angola over Iran in the group’s other match in Leipzig, would result in the Mexicans’ elimination from the tournament. A victory would see them pip today’s rivals and ensure qualification for the second phase as group winners.
Portugal’s ‘golden summer’ of 2004 re-ignited the country’s passion for football, and the opening victories over Angola and Iran have secured their presence in the knockout phase of the World Cup for the first time since 1966. Two years ago FC Porto clinched an unlikely victory in the UEFA Champions League, and this improbable scenario was quickly followed by the national team’s run to the final of Euro 2004 – a tournament that they hosted. The defeat in the final by underdogs Greece broke the hearts of the Portuguese people, but pride in the team’s performances and widespread optimism for the future ensured that the pain eased relatively quickly.
The man who has earned most of the plaudits for Portugal’s upturn in fortunes is their celebrated Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The case for ‘Big Phil’ being the most successful World Cup coach ever is gathering momentum. Portugal’s win over Iran last weekend was Scolari’s ninth consecutive finals victory, breaking a record that had stood for almost seventy years. He led Brazil to seven straight victories on their way to victory in the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, and became coach of Portugal shortly afterwards. Should he lead the ‘Selecao das Quintas’ to the trophy in this time round then his place in the pantheon of the sport’s greatest-ever managers will be assured.
Seven of Portugal’s squad will be returning to the scene of their greatest triumph this afternoon. When FC Porto defeated Monaco in the UEFA Champions League final the venue was Gelsenkirchen. For Deco, Paulo Ferreira, Costinha, Maniche, Nuno Valente, Ricardo Carvalho and Ricardo Costa, tonight’s match will evoke some treasured memories and Scolari will be hoping that it can provide inspiration for them to finish the group stage on a high.
With qualification assured and only a point required to finish top of the group, Scolari is likely to take the opportunity to rest some of his players ahead of the second round. Midfielders Deco and Costinha, and first-choice striker Pauleta, are all one booking away from missing the second round tie and will not be risked this afternoon. Their potential replacements are all talented and experienced players, meaning that the disruption to the team will be minimal as Portugal look to extend their winning streak in 2006 to six matches.
Scolari, who recently signed a two-year extension to his contract with the Portuguese FA after reportedly rejecting the advances of England, took time to reflect on his team’s achievement in reaching the second round and looked ahead to this afternoon’s match when he spoke to the press on Monday.
“The win over Iran on Saturday was an historic moment for Portugal,” he declared.
“It is the first time in 40 years that they have come so far. The players are elated and so am I, but we still want to beat Mexico to ensure we finish in first place. The fact that we have qualified means that we can be calmer against Mexico and rest some of our players – particularly those who already have yellow cards. We will then see what happens in the last 16.”
Right-back Miguel is in no doubt that it is the coach who must take the majority of the praise for turning around Portugal’s fortunes. Echoing the praise heaped on Scolari by Luis Figo earlier in the competition, Miguel claimed that it was the coach’s motivational skills that had made such a difference.
“Scolari gives us a psychological advantage,” he revealed.
“He has taught us to take every game seriously, regardless of the opposition. In the past perhaps some Portuguese teams have suffered from arrogance when playing the so-called weaker nations. There is no chance of that happening under the boss.”
Mexico coach Ricardo La Volpe is likely to name an unchanged team for this afternoon’s match. The continued absence of top scorer Jared Borghetti with a hamstring injury is his only headache ahead of the crucial match, and Omar Bravo, who scored two goals in the opening 3-1 win over Iran, will continue to deputise.
Mexico’s recent form at the World Cup Finals is hugely impressive, despite their failure to ever get past the first knockout round in a foreign country. The 1970 and 1986 hosts have reached the last sixteen in their last four appearances at the World Cup and are unbeaten in their last ten group stage games – a run that stretches back to a 1-0 defeat by Norway at USA 1994.
This excellent run of form will give the Mexicans confidence that they can secure the result they need to guarantee their progress and they are accustomed to performing under pressure. It is the fourth consecutive World Cup at which they have needed to wait until the final group match to ensure qualification. Such a talented team as the Portuguese will also hold no fears – in 1994 and 2002 Mexico’s final group-stage opponents were European giants Italy. On both occasions ‘El Tricolor’ did enough to secure their passage through.
“We are aware that we have needed results going into the final group matches at the last few tournaments and have achieved them,” said midfielder Gonzalo Pineda on Tuesday.
“We feel more than capable of matching the achievements of the past. We have a very talented squad and there are no doubts among us that we will qualify.”
La Volpe appeared to be more cautious when he addressed the press on the same day, urging his players to keep their concentration and focus only on Portugal. The danger of paying too much attention to the group’s other match, Iran vs Angola, is not lost on him.
“We need to focus only ourselves as qualification is in our hands,” he said.
“We mustn’t spend too much time worrying about our opponents, and we must spend even less time worrying about the events in the other match. A win or a draw is vital but, although a draw will see us go through, we are only thinking about winning.”
It is highly likely that the Mexicans will do enough to qualify this afternoon – they always seem to. For many fans, however, real progress will only come in the form of a quarter-final spot. With either Holland or Argentina waiting in the first knockout stage such an eventuality looks improbable.
By Mark Robinson
Portugal: Sanchez; Mendez, Marquez, Osorio, Salcido; Pineda, Torrado, Zinha, Pardo; Franco, Bravo
Mexico: Ricardo; Miguel, Carvalho, Meira, Nuno Valente; Petit, Maniche; Ronaldo, Figo, Simao; Nuno Gomes
Referee: Lubos Michel (Slovakia)