It was a night of surprises, underpinned by the inevitable. Cristiano Ronaldo became Portugal's outright all-time leading scorer — ahead of Pedro Pauleta — in the 21st minute, rolling Joao Pereira’s cross around a bemused Nicolas N'Koulou before drilling into the bottom corner.
As clearly as night follows day, the captain’s 49th international goal was logged before the night was done, with another tidy finish as Volker Finke’s side crumbled in the final half-hour. Yet if Ronaldo was the headline, there was plenty more to lift the spirits of coach Paulo Bento and the vast majority of the 21,355 spectators in the Estadio Dr Magalhaes Pessoa in Leiria.
It was an inauspicious venue for growth. This 50 million euro white elephant from Euro 2004 has only just welcomed back Uniao Leiria (now in Portugal’s third tier) as tenants, with the club having moved out for a few seasons after struggling to pay the bills with their meagre crowds. Yet the shoots of genuine optimism for the summer’s challenge in Brazil gently revealed themselves. “We shouldn’t be euphoric because we won a friendly 5-1,” cautioned Bento after the match, but he has more to work with than some thought he might have.
The perpetually stoic Bento had himself been responsible for the first couple of eyebrow-raising moments in this match; firstly, with his initial squad selection, which included a pair of inexperienced if talented 20-year-olds in Ivan Cavaleiro and Rafa Silva and secondly, with the shape of his starting XI.
The former Sporting coach is nothing if not a creature of habit, but he threw us a curveball in sending out his side in an unfamiliar 4-4-2, incorporating a midfield diamond with debutant Rafa at its tip in support of a front pairing of Ronaldo and Cavaleiro. It wasn’t entirely successful, even if the attacking freedom granted to full-backs Pereira and Fabio Coentrao was interesting. The responsibility of playing at being Rui Costa proved just a little too much for Rafa at this point, even if he is a player of undoubted talent.
Everything clicked into place after the interval, with Edinho replacing the Braga youngster and slotting into the centre-forward role, with Cavaleiro retreating to the right and Ronaldo to the left in a return to the familiar 4-3-3 that has served Bento so well.
Ronaldo scored in both halves and within both systems, of course. “For him, whichever system serves,” was the headline in Thursday’s O Jogo, and this is true, though the devastating speed of Portugal’s counter-attacks after the break reminded that 4-3-3 gets the absolute best out of Ronaldo — which remains, as it should be, the priority. The verb “serves”, in this case, was well chosen by the newspaper.
It suited Cavaleiro too. He has only started three Liga matches for Benfica, but his potential was clear as he warmed to the task in the second half, flourishing and moving diversely from his starting position on the right. Cavaleiro popped up in the inside left channel to set up the third goal for Coentrao, finishing an intelligent run with a well-disguised reverse ball for the Real Madrid left-back.
It is perhaps difficult to imagine Cavaleiro making the World Cup squad, with the fierce competition for places at the Portuguese league leaders likely to leave him empty-handed on most weekends for the rest of this season, but his display was testament to continued youth development and Bento’s willingness to exploit it.
On a night when Sporting’s Ricardo Esgaio was a scorer for the under-21s in their Euro 2015 qualifier against Macedonia, it was a little reminder that the green-and-white of Lisbon doesn’t have a total monopoly on producing wide players of quality. Cavaleiro said after the game that playing with Ronaldo was an experience he had “always dreamed of”, with the captain seen taking the youngster to one side during the warm-up for some extended words of guidance.
We should, of course, assume little about the list that Bento will announce on May 19. If Ronaldo will always be the talisman, the form and personnel of his supporting cast is something that has been the cause of some consideration in recent months. Once the rancour of the captain’s sensational hat trick in the World Cup play-off second leg against Sweden had died down, the reality was sobering.
Ronaldo had been superhuman in Stockholm, and his stellar performance had papered over all manner of cracks in Portugal’s rendering. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s quickfire double had given the Swedes the lead on the night, Bento’s side looked like a bag of nerves. Those doubts were temporarily buried by Ronaldo’s brutality on the counter-attack, but the coach will have been aware that some repair work was needed ahead of Brazil.
He clearly has faith in young midfielder William Carvalho, given his debut in the most testing of circumstances that night in Stockholm, brought on for Raul Meireles just after Sweden took the lead. For those who have seen him regularly for Sporting — including Manchester United’s scouts — his maturity and ability to take it in his stride was no surprise.
William enjoyed a full debut in Leiria and showed his teeth, frequently dropping in to cover from the not-entirely-convincing centre-back pairing of Luis Neto and Rolando as Cameroon held their own in a competitive first half. The 20-year-old’s passing is variable, but his composure is why some suggest that Porto’s anchorman Fernando should perhaps not join the squad, even when the Brazilian-born midfielder’s administrative issues are sorted. Ideally, the inclusion of both would make Portugal strong, particularly with doubts over how much Dynamo Kiev’s Miguel Veloso will play before the end of the season, given the suspension of the Ukrainian Premier League.
Veloso is perhaps symptomatic of Beto’s greatest concern — the form of some of his cornerstones. With Nani fading from the picture, it was encouraging to see Meireles step forward (particularly in the second half), Joao Moutinho was looking like his classy old self rather than the phantom that is traversing a tough period with Monaco. Coentrao certainly had the bit between his teeth after a peripatetic season in Madrid, with an ugly first-half bust-up with Alex Song demonstrating his eagerness perhaps a bit too keenly.
The most important aspect of Coentrao, for Portugal, is what he gets out of Ronaldo. The way in which Bento is calibrating his squad suggests that their star will have every opportunity to shine brightly in Brazil.