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article imageUSA's Fabian Johnson dominates right flank against Portugal

By Tyrrell Meertins     Jun 23, 2014 in Sports
One of the few pieces of criticism Paulo Bento has received during his tenure as Portuguese manager is his reluctance to adapt.
Bento, however, was forced into making a few alterations to his preferred starting XI due to the injuries of Fabio Coentrao, Rui Patricio, Hugo Almeida, and Pepe’s one-match suspension. Andre Almeida and Ricardo Costa joined Bento’s defence, while Helder Postiga led the line. The Americans were also forced to alter their starting XI following Jozy Altidore’s injury, and Graham Zusi played on the wing of a 4-5-1, with Clint Dempsey leading the line.
Nani’s fortuitous goal in the opening five minutes — another early goal in a USA game in Brazil — meant the Americans would have to score twice to secure progression. Due to the weather conditions neither side pressed with intensity as Klinsmann’s men were keen on dropping off and allowing the Portuguese midfield to have the ball until they entered their final third, while Bento’s side equally dropped into two banks of four and pressed in midfield.
Portugal’s midfielders dropped deep between the split centre-backs to obtain possession and pushed their fullbacks into the oppositions half. However, they failed to create overloads in wide areas due to the wingers moving into central positions, and neither fullback consistently contributed offensively. This put more pressure on Portugal’s midfield trio to provide a spark, with Miguel Veloso enjoying a positive outing in a deeper role, Raul Meireles carrying out his duties on both ends, while Joao Moutinho was underwhelming in the final third.
Bento’s attackers weren’t any better, as Eder didn’t offer a goal threat upfront, and his link-up play was putrid. Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t fully fit and quite limited going forward, and despite Nani offering a few positive moments, the Portuguese winger enjoyed a fairly mediocre afternoon.
Klinsmann’s men, on the other hand, enjoyed two routes of attack that consistently tormented Portugal’s defence. Dempsey made clever runs behind Bruno Alves into the channels to stretch the Portuguese back-line, but the first attempt by Geoff Cameron saw Costa read the situation and cover his centre-back partner to clear his lines. Michael Bradley became the main facilitator of this approach twice in the opening half, as the first ball dinked into the box saw Dempsey force Beto to make a save, while the Portuguese keeper quickly sprung off his line to clear the ball shortly afterwards. Bradley’s improvement from the USA opener was key as the American midfielder recorded the most ball recoveries in the match — seven — and sustained an 87 per-cent pass completion rate.
The main danger area in Portugal’s setup, however, is the left flank, and it was logical that Klinsmann instructed his side to exploit space behind Almeida. Denmark vividly exposed Portugal’s flaws by creating 2v1 situations in their Euro 2012 group stage match — taking advantage of Cristiano Ronaldo’s reluctance to protect his fullbacks — and Johnson equally dominated the right flank throughout the match.
The majority of the USA’s best moves stemmed down the right in the opening half, starting with Kyle Beckerman and Zusi playing a quick one-two in which the former lobbed a ball into the right channel for Johnson to run onto, and the right-back earned a corner. Johnson’s attack-minded approach would normally be a risk considering Ronaldo’s threat on the break — Ronaldo’s fitness played a factor — but Bento’s men had no answers for the American right-back. Portugal’s midfield trio was forced to push over to protect Almeida, but this created space in central areas for the likes of Bradley, Jones and Zusi to penetrate.
Almeida left the match due to injury at half time, and Bento introduced William Carvalho in midfield, and pushed Veloso to left-back, as Portugal transitioned into 4-4-2 with Meireles and Nani on the flanks. Likewise, the Americans enjoyed a numerical advantage in midfield following Bento’s switch to 4-4-2, and due to Portugal’s scarce pressure in central areas, the likes of Jones, Bradley, Zusi and Beckerman excelled.
Still, Johnson’s pace and bravery enabled the right-back to create three more chances down the right flank. In the 48th minute, Jones' lofted ball into the right channel saw Johnson blitz past Meireles and Veloso, with the latter recovering as he deflected the right-back’s cross into the path of Beto, and the Portuguese keeper pushed the ball away for a corner.
Then Zusi drifted into a pocket of space to receive the ball, and he played a pass into the right for the overlapping Johnson who then drove to the byline and his cutback pass to an unmarked Bradley saw Costa make a goal-line block to preserve Portugal’s lead.
Lastly, Jones switched the route of attack and found Johnson on the right and Bruno Alves directed his low cross into Bradley's path, but his blocked shot fell to Zusi who then squared the ball to Dempsey to direct into the net, giving the Americans the lead following Jones’ sensational equalizer. Portugal’s narrow defending, and the lack of defensive cover encouraged Johnson to push forward, and the right-back was undoubtedly the most effective player on the pitch.
The tempo of the match gradually decreased in the second half with Portugal dropping in two banks of four and aiming to play on the break, but apart from Ronaldo’s skewed shot and Silvestre Varela's late equalizer, this method of attack was futile. Bento’s final change of the match introduced Varela for Meireles, and Portugal now had two legitimate wingers on the flanks.
Suddenly, Nani was sticking to the touch-line, opposed to half-space, to isolate the defensively limited DaMarcus Beasley and creating positive half-chances, but Portugal failed to test Howard. Veloso looked uncomfortable at left-back, but his move into defence left Portugal with Moutinho as their sole facilitator in midfield, and although the 27-year-old got into great positions between the lines, he couldn’t play the final pass to set his side free on goal.
Portugal found an equalizer in the final minute of the match, and it stemmed down the flank that they should’ve penetrated frequently. Eder dispossessed Bradley in midfield and Nani instantly played a pass to Ronaldo on the right flank, and the Portuguese forward delivered a sensational cross towards the back-post towards Varela who nodded a powerful header past Howard.
"The coaching staff put in place a great game plan. Portugal didn't cause us too many problems and we could have avoided both their goals,” Howard said.
"We moved the ball around better and had the clearer chances. We're not going to let the last-gasp goal get us down."
Portugal opted to preserved their lead in the second half, and the switch to 4-4-2 didn’t help their cause. Bento’s attempt to nullify Johnson was ineffective, and the Americans dominated the midfield because Ronaldo and Eder didn’t contribute defensively.
"We were unlucky late in the first half, but it was a great effort to level the match.
"Now all we can do is to give everything in our very last game and try and make the most of the very little chance that we have left."
The Americans exploited Portugal’s main weakness through Johnson’s pluck and willingness to push into advanced areas, and Klinsmann's side will only need a point in their final game to secure a berth in the round of 16.
More about USA, Fabian Johnson, Portugal, Ronaldo, Cristiano ronaldo
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