Ping! Pow! Paulo Bento and his Portugal squad have spent most of the last seven days bobbing and weaving, swinging and swaying under a finely-honed series of attacks. At first, their defence was belaboured, and the slings (not to mention the arrows) found their home with an undeniable force. But by the time Bento sat down to face the press following last night following Portugal's 0-0, he resembled a stoic who has endured what he increasingly believes to be the worst, or at least something close to it.
In the wake of the great Joe Frazier's passing, the temptation to reach into the bloodied book of boxing analogies is at an all time high. But in truth, Portugal have resembled less a prizefighter than a leaking ship, one which many chose to label sinking prior to kick off in the crackling Bilino Polje stadium yesterday evening.
In fairness to Bento, the foul weather (both metaphorical and literal) that had descended on his preparations can only be partially attributed to his methods and decisions. The two main issues were undeniably external.
First, there was José Bosingwa. An undisputed starter during the latter days of Luiz Felipe Scolari and throughout the chaotic reign of Carlos Queiroz, Bosingwa's career was in October 2009 placed on ice for a year by a serious knee injury, one which ruled him out of Portugal's ill-fated World Cup campaign. As Bento set about reviving the fortunes of the Selecção, with wins over Denmark, Iceland, and most memorably Spain, Bosingwa was easing his way back into the rhythm of competitive football. Against Argentina in February of this year, Bento once again selected João Pereira ahead of Bosingwa, reportedly irking the latter's ire. Facts are conspicuous by their absence in this case, but a generally agreed-upon version of events has emerged - Bosingwa made his displeasure known, Bento promptly dropped him from the squad.
In Tuesday's A Bola, Bosingwa broke his silence, days after Bento had cracked under the relentless line of questioning regarding his continued exclusion and termed the Chelsea player "emotionally unstable." This is not exactly unfamiliar territory for Bento. Vladimir Stojkovic, Miguel Veloso and even the untouchable Liédson were among those who were drawn into messy, public falling-outs with him at Sporting, with the first two eventually finding their positions at the club to be untenable. A taciturn figure, Bento possesses a clear distaste for what might be termed the more modern aspects of the game, including the creeping rise in player power. Like many disciplinarian coaches, his own days as a pro were marked by a number of unsavoury incidents, including a lengthy ban following Portugal's Euro 2000 semi-final exit.
Clearly Bosingwa is a man who knows his history. "I am proud to say that I have a spotless record with the national team, unlike him [Bento], who in emotional terms left much to be desired at Euro 2000." Dispensing with the my-dad-is-bigger-than-your-dad tactics, Bosingwa then delivered a bilious parting shot: "It is public knowledge that he is a coach in conflict with his players. As much as I find it hard, I will not go back on my word and I will not wear the national shirt while he is coach..."
Of course, by the time he could be confronted with Bosingwa's stinging testimony (having despatched Hélder Postiga and Pepe to face the music during the squad's preparatory training camp in Óbidos), Bento - and the press - had bigger fish to fry. Or perhaps plant, if you were Portugal technical director Carlos Godinho, who reportedly described the admittedly abysmalturf at the Bilino Polje as more similar to that of a potato field than a football pitch. In the event, a few spuds - think of them as auxiliary projectiles - might have come in handy during an eventful stay in Bosnia that began with chants of 'Messi, Messi' at Sarajevo airport, moved on to the now-infamous laser pen incident(s), and culminated (according to FPF President Gilberto Madaíl) in the Bosnian authorities ordering the watering of the turf prior to kick off, despite having agreed not to do so.
A more testing environment you could not wish to avoid. But, like a ship that sails grimly headlong into an oncoming storm, Portugal took to the field against Bosnia and, for the first forty-five minutes in particular, outplayed them in unexpectedly comprehensive fashion. The pitch undoubtedly hindered both teams: Moutinho and Coentrão were not their usual influential selves, but equally one can hardly imagine that the nimble, creative Pjanić particularly relished the task of threading together passes on the tough, pitted surface.
In the end, a draw was perhaps the fairest result. Ronaldo and Postiga both wasted presentable openings, whilst an improvement in decision-making from Portugal's front three at times might conceivably have led to a precious away goal. Pepe and Bruno Alves delivered an uncharacteristically composed display at the heart of defence, whilst Miguel Veloso - a succession of woeful corners apart - illustrated the need for a more orthodox defensive midfielder in Bento's 4-3-3. The inclusion of his former sparring partner at the Alvalade not only provided an additional presence at the back, but also released Raúl Meireles (who once again ran himself into the ground) from the tactical shackles of a deep-lying role.
Yet, were it not for some exceptionally wasteful finishing from the unfortunate Vedad Ibišević, Bosnia would have conjured up yet another storm for Bento to endure over the next seventy-two hours. Portugal were not spectacular last night, not by a long chalk. But neither were they the shambles that many had anticipated. Bento's raison d'etre as a player and coach has sometimes been a curmudgeonly one, and his gruff persona coupled with a perceived tactical intransigence ensures that he'll never be mistaken for Scolari in terms of his ability to mobilise the masses. But for now, after the week the Selecção have had - under the circumstances - a quiet satisfaction heading into Tuesday's second leg is permissible.
Photo Credit: Nuno Velga/Lusa