Greek lessons and veteran Pepe key to Portugal progress
By Brian Homewood
LYON (Reuters) - Having reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals without winning a game in 90 minutes it is probably time for Portugal fans to stop worrying about their misfiring forwards and instead give credit to the coach and defenders who have got the to the last four.
And, having had their dreams destroyed by Greece when they reached their only tournament final on home soil in the 2004 Euros, they should shake off any ill-feelings they hold towards the Greeks and instead recognise how they too have contributed to their progress in France.
Portugal have played five games so far and all of them have ended level after 90 minutes. Apart from the 3-3 draw with Hungary, their games have yielded a total of two goals for and two against, with their only victory being the 1-0 extra time win over Croatia.
Cristiano Ronaldo was seen as the key for Portugal before the tournament but while he and the rest of their attacking players have failed to sparkle, coach Fernando Santos has found other ways of wining games, partly by delving into the past.
Before he was appointed as Portugal coach two years ago, Santos had been coach of Greece for four years.
With only limited resources, he was forced to adopt a pragmatic approach which was good enough to take his side to the 2012 Euros and 2014 World Cups.
Portugal offers more talent for Santos to work with but even so, he has brought a dose of that pragmatism and safety-first approach with him.
He was not afraid to replace 38-year-old central defender Ricardo Carvalho after his side shipped three goals against Hungary and replace him with Jose Fonte.
Another key decision was to field Adrien Silva in the centre of midfield in the second round match against Croatia in place of Joao Moutinho to counter the threat posed by Ivan Rakitic.
The match was widely recognised as one of the worst of the tournament but, after a goalless 90 minutes without a single shot on target, Portugal snatched the win deep into extra-time.
"Sometimes you have to be pragmatic. It'd be nice to play pretty but that's not always how you win tournaments," said an unapologetic Santos.
"We were up against an amazing (Croatia) team and this was always going to be tight and strong. We were ready for them and we set up to resist their strengths and take advantage of their weak spots," said Santos.
For quarter-final against Poland, Santos shuffled again and gave teenager Renato Sanches his first international start.
After a bright opening it soon turned into another miserable match for the neutrals but Sanches repaid Santos with a goal and Portugal went through on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
Defensively, Portugal are a very tough nut to crack.
Holding midfielder William Carvalho provides extra cover for the back four while the threat that Ronaldo or Nani could strike at any moment makes Portugal's opponents reluctant to go for all-out attack.
If anyone has stood out, however, it has been Brazilian-born Pepe at centre back.
The 33-year-old, who is battling to overcome a thigh injury in time to play on Wednesday, has shown that, beyond his notorious theatrics, he is an excellent defender who combines superb anticipation with good distribution of the ball.
"He's been a leader of this team since the start," said Santos. "He has been the right arm of the coach."
Santos admitted for the outset that Portugal might not be pretty to watch but they are certainly no soft touch.
"I'm not saying that we are going to win every game," he said. "But we're certainly going to be difficult to beat."
(Writing by Brian Homewood)