MAHONEY: Portugal wins banal battle

By Ridge Mahoney
in Gelsenkirchen
It is sometimes said of a match decided on penalties that neither team deserved to lose.

In the case of Saturday's quarterfinal between Portugal and England, neither team really deserved to win, and the team less deserving to lose, did.

Despite playing a man up for nearly an hour after the dismissal of English firebrand Wayne Rooney for assaulting an opponent, Portugal could only sporadically dictate the tempo and survived several English near misses before prevailing on penalties, 3-1.

Goalkeeper Ricardo saved three of four English spot kicks (and got his hand on the one that did go in) to atone for the largely brainless play of his teammates lacking the suspended Costinha and Deco; their propensity for haste and shots from distance with the man advantage inspired England, whose spirit and effort never wavered.

Yet for all their promising moves and crisp combinations, England lacked that final decisive stroke. Steven Gerrard bravely breached Portugal's back line several times only to hit a poor cross or run aground, Frank Lampard's miserable form at this tournament continued, and David Beckham's services were lost shortly after halftime when he aggravated a knee injury in an aerial collision with Nuno Valente.

Still, aside from Rooney's moment of madness while scrapping with Ricardo Carvalho in the center circle, England strived valiantly. Defenders John Terry and Ashley Cole shone, Owen Hargreaves won honors as Man of the Match, and substitute Aaron Lennon unhinged Portugal with audacious dribbles.

"We didn't take advantage because we tried too much shooting from outside the penalty area," said Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari of a 20-9 edge in shots, few of which stretched English goalie Paul Robinson. "The Portuguese players are not so good shooting from outside the penalty area. "England closed the ways to the goal very well. We tried to play the sides of the field but they were very close and they didn't give a chance to shoot with confidence. So it was like playing 11 against 11."

Cristano Ronaldo sparked Portugal early in the match, stutter-stepping his way down the wings, but Terry and Rio Ferdinand rendered Pauleta invisible and Luis Figo quickly tired of being shacked by Hargreaves. Sharper work came from Ashley Cole and Joe Cole; with Rooney laboring up front alone, England lacked the means to test Ricardo, who saved just four shots in regulation and extra time.

So harsh had been criticism of England's play in its first four games that FIFA president Sepp Blatter jumped aboard the bland bandwagon, which prompted retorts from left back Gary Neville. Off this display, Blatter wasn't far wrong but English mediocrity superseded Portuguese bewilderment in every manner but the result.

Chanting and singing English fans dominated the crowd of 52,000 and even as extra time dragged on Portugal rarely carved open England's back line. But while English spirit persisted, eventually the nerves cracked.

Portugal will play in its first World Cup semifinal since 1966, when a dynamic, exciting team led by the legendary Eusebio, who was in attendance at this match, lost to England, 2-1. For England, ousted at this stage for the third straight major tournament, Coach Sven Goran Eriksson conceded failure.  On all three occasions, Scolari masterminded victory. Brazil beat England on its way to the 2002 World Cup crown and Portugal knocked out England on penalties at Euro 2004.

"Four years ago, I think we did okay," said Eriksson. "Two years ago, okay. This time, no. It's not good enough. The team we had, the squad we had, we should have least qualified for the semi. We don't blame the referee or somebody else. We are out because we failed on the capital occasions."

Converting on their occasions were Simao Sibrosa, Helder Postiga and, with the clincher, Ronaldo Cristiano. The Portuguese can take as inspiration they didn't play well yet still won and will have Deco and Costinha back as they vie for a first-ever appearance in the World Cup final.

For the English, the six-year tenure of a libidinous Swede is over. A tried-and-true Englishman, Steve McLaren, takes over with the same objective: fusing traditional characteristics of determination and pluck to go a step further. Scolari has done just that with Portugal and if the English FA hadn't been so hasty in picking Eriksson's successor, he might not have had to quell speculation by turning down the job months ago.

Scolari hasn't announced what he'll do after the World Cup. But there's no rush; unlike Eriksson, he still has at least another week of employment.

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