FOXBOROUGH, Mass.- The US plays Portugal June 22 in the World Cup’s Group G. And despite Portugal edging Mexico 1-0 Friday at Gillette Stadium, America’s team is likely hoping the Portuguese will play the same way in their match later this month.
Despite being ranked fourth in the world by the latest FIFA rankings, the Portuguese were sucked into Mexico’s flashy, attacking-based scheme and looked lost without international superstars Cristiano Ronaldo (knee), Raul Meireles (fitness concerns), and Pepe (leg) as they barely beat El Tri.
Bruno Alves had the game’s decisive play in the third and final minute of second half stoppage time, heading in a free header off a delivery by Joao Moutinho past the outstretched reach of Guillermo Ochoa. It was one of very few moments in which the Portuguese actually threatened the Mexicans, who controlled the brunt of possession and had the momentum in both halves.
Mexico, who only qualified for Brazil through an intercontinental playoff with New Zealand, generally bump up their form ahead of the World Cup. And despite their rocky play in the last 18 months, the Mexicans have had no problem stepping up ahead of this tournament, as well. But the Mexicans were helped by the fact that Friday’s match was a friendly and that Portugal were without their star players.
Given the chance, Portugal head coach Paulo Bento won’t think twice about starting Ronaldo, Meireles, and Pepe at the World Cup. The hope for Os Navegadores is that the injuries hampering their key trio of players, especially Ronaldo, will be cleared up before they kick-off their World Cup campaign against Germany in Salvador on June 16 or, at the latest, for their second group game against the US on June 22 in Manaus.
“It’s going to be a balanced group with four strong teams,’’ Bento said. “It’s going to be very difficult for us, but we’ll fight until the end to make the knockout stage.’’
Bento also said that he was unsure of the status regarding Ronaldo in the post-game press conference.
The Portuguese have reason to hope for speedy recoveries. They seemed to panic each time Mexico strung more than two passes together and resorted only to counterattacks for most of the game. Joao Pereira, who played as the lone forward for most of the game, was seldom found in the area. The starting three-man midfield composed of Eder, Neto, and Nani couldn’t unlock Mexico’s simple, possession-based play either.
Portugal had the game’s first two chances but were otherwise quiet until Bruno Alves stole the result at the death. In the 14th minute, Vieirinha cut by his marker and fired a low drive to the near post that Mexico goalkeeper Jesus Corona dropped down to knock away. In the 22nd minute, Pereira went in alone on goal off a feed from Coentrao but had his point-blank drive palmed away by Corona again.
Mexico frustrated Portugal’s offense after that point. Miguel Layun chipped Portuguese goalkeeper Eduardo from 25 yards out, forcing him to push the ball over the crossbar in the 31st. Then, in the 43rd, Oribe Peralta blasted a low drive wide of the far post.
El Tri maintained their offensive flow in the second half, too. Layun had two shots saved by Eduardo on one play (48th), Andres Guardado fired one inches past the far post (55th), Hector Herrera volleyed a feed by Javier “Chicharito’’ Hernandez off the fingertips of Eduardo at the near post, and Hernandez had his one 20-yard drive knocked away (68th).
Portugal had to amp up their physical play in the second half, as they hacked away at Mexico’s midfield players and picked up two yellow cards. But the goal, despite being very much against the run of play, should serve as a reminder to the US that Portugal have the class to jump on a single lapse.
The US, who take on Nigeria on Saturday night in Jacksonville, Fla., for their third and final friendly on American soil before heading to Brazil, should have been glued to their television screens for Friday night’s clash in Foxborough. Though Portugal will be entirely different with their full team on the field, Mexico at least showed the US that a constant attack and exploiting the flanks can go a long way against the Portuguese.
Meanwhile, the overall sentiment from Bento’s post-game press conference was that even though Portugal snatched a late victory, their play on Friday would have been unacceptable in Brazil.