When Linda Sällström scored a 93rd minute winner for Anna Signeul’s Finland on Friday she not only secured automatic qualification to Euro 2022 for her nation but also ensured that Portugal would have to settle for a place in the playoffs with defeat leaving the Portuguese requiring an eight goal victory over Scotland and for Israel to produce an upset for the ages against Italy to sneak the final automatic qualifying spot for the best three group runners up.
That injury time strike, a third vital one in Finland’s four contests against their two main group rivals, means Portugal’s arrive in Larnaca, for a game originally scheduled to take place in Edinburgh, will see them contest the deadest of rubbers with the “hosts” looking ahead to World Cup 2023 qualifying and with Portuguese focus now firmly switched to the forthcoming play off draw.
Scotland began the healing process with a ruthless 10-0 demolition of a Cyprus side that failed to show the progress that many believed they had made from that 8-0 defeat at Easter Road 18 months ago but, even with Portugal’s fate now decided, a bigger test awaits Interim Head Coach Stuart McLaren as he looks to make it two wins from two.
Portugal’s defeat in Helsinki was their first in qualifying but the performance maintained a run of tightly fought encounters for Francisco Neto’s side. Of the seven games the Portuguese have contesetd they have won four by a 1-0 scoreline and have only scored more than a solitary goal on one occasion during their 3-0 defeat away to Cyprus in October, the Cypriot rearguard action severely hampered by a 39th minute sending off.
Portugal eventually made the extra body count in Larnaca but in both home ties against minnows Albania and Cyprus they failed to break down either during the opening 45 minutes and thier positive results against Scotland and Finland were built on soaking up pressure and hoping for success on the counter, something they did particularly effectively against a profligate Scotland in the return fixture earlier in the campaign.
In a group as tight as Group E the Portuguese have got by defending in numbers and their back four can quickly transition to a seven with support from midfield. This does make them difficult to break down but often leaves their most potent attacking threats isolated. It’s a formula that that when cast as the underdog has worked although in those games where the expectation is on them to take the initiative they can struggle. Their own goal victory over Cyprus, a side Scotland put 18 past across two games, a point of reference.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that on occasion they have rode their luck during qualifying too. Both Scotland in Lisbon and Finland last Friday dominated for vast swathes of the game and would have been out of sight with more clinical finishing but a record that shows just two goal concessions from seven games can’t be ignored. When a team sets out to sit so deep it needs creative outlets and boss Francisco Neto has been able to wring just enough out of his squad to pull them through to the playoffs.
Claudia Neto remains the talisman, the 32-year-old Fiorentina captain, scored twice during qualifying and when the Portuguese have needed inspiration she remains the one to be most often called upon. Throughout qualifying she has offered glimpses of magic, her quick thinking opener against Albania a particular highlight with the captain also shouldering responsibility during the biggest moments as she did from the spot to put her side 1-0 up at home to Finland in a game that would ultimately end with the points being shared.
She hasn’t done it alone though, Ana Capeta has provided game-winning goals from the bench and Aston Villa striker Diana Silva, who will be well recognised by followers of the WSL. is a regular outlet when the defensive pressure needs released but more will be required in the final third if the Portuguese are to come through what will be a highly competitive play-off round.
If Scotland can break the Portuguese down early, and they have the ability to do so, then a positive result can be achieved but waste chances and another sucker punch could see qualifying end with yet another narrow defeat. Portugal are organised and functional, two regimented parameters that may change with nothing on the line, but even if the formula remains the same this is a game, much like it was late last year, that Scotland have the ability to win. Pulling apart Cyprus is one thing, having the Portuguese on strings will be a very different matter.
Remember you can watch today’s game from 3:10pm on BBC Alba.
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