Swings and roundabouts, isn’t it? The United States benefited from an early goal against Ghana, but this time around they conceded one, albeit not quite so soon. Nani pounced on a mistake by Geoff Cameron to rifle past Tim Howard, who was simultaneously left stranded and should have done better – one on one with Nani but sitting down to make it easy for him. The Portuguese had snatched a lead before the game settled into any sort of rhythm.
Paul Bento continued with the 4-3-3 from the Germany match, only making changes he was forced into: Andre Almeida and Helder Postiga for the injured Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida, and Ricardo Costa for the suspended Pepe. Due to the injury to Jozy Altidore, Jurgen Klinsmann changed to a 4-2-3-1, bringing in Graham Zusi on the right in the Sunderland striker’s place.
Despite its fortuitous nature, Portugal looked good value for their lead early on though. Typically when a 4-3-3 goes against a 4-2-3-1 each midfielder has a individual battle with their direct opponent, yet here the Portuguese avoided this. Their midfield sat deeper and narrowed the American attacking midfield band, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani drifted inside and the full-backs pushed forward. The Portuguese worked the ball around well and were looking comfortable in their immediate lead.
It wasn’t long before the United States took advantage of a major flaw in the Portuguese gameplan. Whether it was because of his injury or simply because he’s Ronaldo, the Portuguese captain doesn’t track back. This gave Fabian Johnson the run of the right flank and his adventurous positioning meant he and Zusi were able to overload Almeida with ease.
Every time the US got the ball they now looked a threat down this right side, so to compensate Portugal switched to a 4-4-2, with Raul Meireles moving out to the left and Ronaldo the furthest man forward, with even the nominal striker, substitute Eder, dropping back further than the Real Madrid superstar. This sacrificed their balance in the middle however, and the Portuguese midfield was constantly caught between trying to stop Johnson on the right and not being outnumbered in the middle. Another injury to Almeida meant the introduction of the hotly-tipped William Carvalho into the middle, who did a better job than Miguel Veloso, who has filled in previously at full-back but looked completely out of his depth once moved to the left today.
Jermaine Jones’ equaliser was a wonder-strike following a set-piece but Clint Dempsey’s goal to put them into the lead showed how the United States had got Portugal trapped defensively. Portugal having to cover Johnson means Michael Bradley has acres of space between the lines – he made a hash of his shot, but the ball fell to Zusi for Dempsey to stomach across the line.
After the goal, Portugal had a good spell and it was mainly due to the United States shooting themselves in the foot. They had tactically outclassed the Portuguese and would have been ahead a lot sooner were they not so poor technically. A notable counter-attack with the Americans having a several man advantage was snuffed out when Bradley scuffed the ball straight to a Portuguese defender – just one example of the American midfield frequently surrendering possession cheaply.
With seconds left to play, Bradley again lost the ball in midfield and the ball found its way to Ronaldo who put in a perfect cross for Silvestre Varela to equalise. It is difficult to criticise conceding from such a spectacular piece of play from one of the world’s best players, but Cameron’s positioning to defend the cross was terrible. Both Ronaldo’s ball and the American defence made it easy for Varela.
For the second time the United States have performed valiantly, yet this time their weaknesses were punished. Their lack of technical ability made it hard for them to keep the ball against Ghana and against Portugal it made it harder than it should have been for them to transfer their dominance into goals, while Klinsmann’s poor defensive organisation led to another equalising goal. With a bit more quality, they would have sailed past an awful Portugal side. The player that made the difference for them, both good and bad, was Ronaldo – he provided the flash of brilliance for the goal, yet he also hugely unbalanced the side to give the United States the advantage. Still, this does not excuse the truly horrendous performances from the likes of Nani and Eder – the former, goal and a handful of low shots aside, unable to trap the simplest balls into feet, and the latter looking like a lower league striker at best.