Portugal 0-1 Albania
The Seleçao began their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign at the Estadio Municipal de Aveiro with a miserable defeat to lowly Albania. With Cristiano Ronaldo sidelined due to injury, Portugal once again failed to prove that their coherency as a team doesn't depend solely on their illustrious talisman.
Despite all of the new faces in the Portuguese side, Paulo Bento stayed true to form by choosing a relatively familiar starting eleven with Nani and Vieirinha on the wings, and Éder at striker. André Gomes was preferred in the holding central midfield role over Raul Meireles while Ricardo Costa deputised for the injured Bruno Alves. Nani was named Portugal's captain in Ronaldo's absence.
As many would have expected, the Seleção looked disjointed and noncommittal as to how they should attack the Albanian defense. The visitors meanwhile seemed content to allow Portugal to play innocuous passes across the middle of the park.
Portugal earned a free kick on the right wing in the 6th minute that was driven in by Nani. The keeper's hesitancy allowed Vierinha to steal in but the ball deflected off his thigh and out for a goal kick.
Moutinho set up Nani with a better chance in the 13th minute when his throughball found the Sporting winger in space, but his shot was dragged wide left. The Albanians, to their credit, were unwilling to allow Portugal enough space to create many chances, and the Seleção laboured in possession throughout the opening half of the match.
Moutinho looked the most likely to break down the stubborn and physical Albanian defense, but without the raw speed and power of Ronaldo on the end of his passes, the decisive end product eluded Portugal. In fact, Patrício was called into action at the end of the half to snuff out a low cross from the right that threatened to find its way to well positioned Albanian attackers.
Pepe probably should have placed his header on target in stoppage time after another free kick from Nani, but the 0-0 halftime scoreline was fully representative of the match at large.
Paulo Bento brought on Ivan Cavaleiro in place of Vieirinha to start the second half, but it was the Albanians who eventually did what Portugal could not. A wonderful cross from Amir Abrashi was finished beautifully on the volley by an unmarked Bekim Balaj, a move of shocking simplicity and exquisite skill. Bento's reaction was to immediately bring on young Ricardo Horta in place of William Carvalho.
Portugal continued to press the tempo but were unable to create clear opportunities. The crowd, quieted all night by Portugal's ineffectiveness, grew more and more discontent with boos and whistles heard in increasing frequency.
Coentrão drove in a low shot across the face of goal in the 63rd minute, but it was well wide of target. Minutes later, Nani's tame shot was gathered by the Albanian keeper. But Portugal were slowly growing in their attacking threat, and the hosts struck the woodwork after a free kick from Nani was deflected into the path of Ricardo Horta. His curling shot struck the angle of the goal and came back out to Pepe who smashed the ball into the stands.
Miguel Veloso came on in the 73rd for Ricardo Costa. Coentrão tied his marker in knots and sent in a wonderful cross that found Nani's late run, but the Sporting winger misplaced his header when it seemed easier to hit the target.
Coentrão had another shot on goal in the 87th minute that was blocked with some difficulty by the Albanian keeper. André Gomes drew an even better save from the visiting shot-stopper when his attempt from outside the penalty area was tipped over a minute later.
In the end, Portugal fans mockingly waved white handkerchiefs as the Seleção finished the match as poorly as they started it. The defeat, perhaps not entirely shocking due to the absence of Ronaldo, was marked by all the familiar signs of distress for Portugal: profligacy in front of goal, lethargic movement, lack of defensive commitment, and uninspiring fan support.
Portugal's young players, such as Horta and Cavaleiro, failed to turn the tide in a match that the Seleção never really settled into. Albania, meanwhile, earned their first ever victory over Portugal in a competitive match.
Bento will need to rebuild his side's confidence and hope to have Ronaldo back next month when the Seleção travel to Copenhagen to face Denmark.
by Nathan Motz
Rui Patrício, João Pereira, Ricardo Costa (Miguel Veloso, 73’), Pepe, Fábio Coentrão, William Carvalho (Ricardo Horta, 56’), André Gomes, João Moutinho, Nani, Éder, Vieirinha (Ivan Cavaleiro, 46’)
Berisha, Hysaj, Cana, Mavraj, Agolli, Xhaka, Kukeli (Kaçe, 65’), Abrashi, Lenjani (Lila, 73’), Roshi, Balaj (Cikalleshi, 81’)
[0-1] Balaj, 52’