WORLD CUP ALMANAC: Semi-Final (2)- Tale of the Tape
Will the King Midas of World Cup football, Big Phil Scolari, extend his unbeaten World Cup run to thirteen games and so propel Portugal to their first ever final? Will the magical Zidane help continue the regeneration of the men, to quote l’Equipe, who refuse to give back the jerseys?
The credit which Portugal’s manager receives for their success is probably inappropriate to his contribution, but there is no doubt that Big Phil has galvanised a good but hardly spectacular squad through his own particular gruffly inspirational management style. France’s rejuvenation, on the other hand, has drawn little in the way of praise for Raymond Domenech, their hitherto maligned coach, their recent success instead seeing bouquets thrown at the feet of Zidane, Vieira, Henry etc.
Who’d be a manager? In our usual no-nonsense fashion, let’s break down the fundamentals…
I would have jettisoned Fabien Barthez a long time ago, myself. Since his ill-fated spell at Manchester United and his subsequent six month drug suspension at Marseilles the bald pate of France's number one has not shone as brightly as it did in the glory days of 1998-2000. But his retention as a sort of good luck charm, another happy thread back to those days, has not cost Domenech yet, despite the claims, and much to the chagrin, of Lyon's Gregory Coupet. Still, that monumental gaffe sometimes feels just around the corner.
Neither am I a fan of Portugal's Ricardo, though for different reasons. His propensity to the cynical feigning of injury when his team are leading - knowing well that the goalkeeper is the only player who cannot be stretchered off for treatment - is odious. Still, he is agile and a tremendous man to have on your side in a penalty shoot-out. as England, of course, know only too well. Anyone with the chutzpah to claim that English players saw the devil when they approached him for their penalties has a lock on the psycho-terror of the shoot-out.
Not much to choose here, both back fours enjoying the protection of two holding midfielders (and to think it took Sven five years to contemplate having one) and therefore rarely being exposed by opposition midfield runners. Still, France's back four have been second only to Italy for steely resolve, with Thuram, Sagnol and Gallas giving Brazil in particular barely a sniff.
Portugal have one of the best full-backs in the tournament in Miguel, although he attracts attention as much for his attacking as for his defending. Ricardo Carvalho marshals a defence that has only conceded one goal, but France wiill be encouraged by how Mexico managed to get in behind the Portuguese back four in the second half of their group match.
This is where it has been turned around by France. Very rarely in the history of the game has a triumvirate like Makalele, Vieira and Zidane been put together: such a balanced composition of midfield talents you could not buy. Supported wide of them by the fresh legs of Ribery and Malouda, France appear to have gotten just right the necessary chemistry of attacking and defending. Because it is a five man midfield, however, much of France's success depends on the two wide men backing up Henry sufficiently, lest their probable dominance of possession be worthless.
Portugal shape up almost exactly the same, and can call again on Deco, their advanced schemer so missed against England, and Costinha. Because they use the same formation as France, it is easy to compare like with like. For Portugal the middle three of Deco, Costinha and Maniche, while strong, is visibly inferior to France's engine room. Out wide, if fit, Christiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo are talented and more reknowned than their opponents, but the former lacks the footballing intelligence to augment his considerable gifts, while the latter (watch him score a hat-trick now...) has lost through age a lot of his zip.
After the gluttony of midfield, the nouvelle cuisine of the opposing strikers. Both teams play with one man up front, but this is the only area on the field where comparison reveals a total mismatch. Making do with Pauleta up front is one of the key reasons why Portugal will always fall short in international football, as no matter how good their build-up play, the lack of a top-class striker leaves them seeming, frankly, a bit flaky.
Meanwhile, Thierry Henry is acknowledged as one of the best players in the world, and while he has rarely produced his club form in the bleu, he demonstrated his value in the quarter final. Had he not ghosted on to Zidane's dead-ball to strike the sweet volley which won France their place in tonight's game, his team could very easily never have transferred their obvious superiority onto the scoreboard.
Although football, especially at this elevated level, remains gloriously unpredictable, all reasonable analysis points to a France victory. Apart, perhaps, from their goalkeeper, there is not an area on the field where Portugal are visibly superior. Off the field, however, is a different matter. Victory tonight would be Big Phil's ultimate achievement, and should it transpire, he would deserve all the praise he would undoubtedly get. His best bet may be to squeeze it all the way to penalties and gamble all his chips on Ricardo.
This time, however, he might have to learn the taste of World Cup defeat.