With so much riding on this game for both the USA and Portugal, the US Men’s National Team couldn’t have picked a better time to play a demoralized and injured Portugal team. But nothing is easy in soccer.
Here are 4 key match-ups to keep your eyes on during the game:
1. Cristiano Ronaldo v. Fabian Johnson
Ronaldo will play. A lesser player may have sat (if reports that Portugal’s team doctor has told Ronaldo he’s risking his career by playing on are true) but Ronaldo lives to play for Portugal.
International soccer is of the utmost importance to Cristiano Ronaldo. Perhaps that attitude is one of the only things to fully respect about the Real Madrid star.
But although Ronaldo would never miss this game, he might not be at full fitness. Ronaldo has been dealing with a knee injury since the end of the club season, and he was — by his level — ineffective in both the UEFA Champions League final and the Germany game last Monday.
However, as Luis Suarez showed against England, a great player can make great plays even short of 100% fitness. Ronaldo will start wide left, but he’ll be eager and anxious to pick up the ball early and often in this game – which means we could see Ronaldo drift.
We’ve seen all the big stars – except Ronaldo – have big moments at this tournament. Ronaldo knows how important this game is for his legacy, brand, and country. He’ll be eager to assert himself.
That means Fabian Johnson will need to be very wary. Against Ghana, Johnson fell asleep for a split-second that allowed Andre Ayew to skate past him for the equalizer. Johnson is a better attacker than defender, so it’ll be crucial that is fully aware of where Ronaldo is on the field as to not be exposed.
Jurgen Klinsmann will want to get the German-American up the field more than he was against Ghana, as it’s been suggested that Johnson is one of the American’s best attackers. The US should have more possession against Portugal than they did against Ghana, which should allow Johnson more opportunity to get forward.
2. Clint Dempsey v. Portugal Center Backs
Portugal’s problems start with their defense. Paulo Bento’s first-choice defense can be leaky and lazy to start with – hence shootouts with Israel and Northern Ireland in qualifying – and Portugal could be without three of their four first-choice defenders.
Their two best – Pepe and Fabio Coentrao – are out, suspended and injured respectively. Bruno Alves was held out of training on Saturday with a muscle problem, and is questionable at best for the game against the US.
We’re most likely going to see Ricardo Costa and Neto – two players with no major championship experience – start, possibly alongside Andre Almeida if Alves can’t go. That’s a potential gold mine for Clint Dempsey.
The Texan runs around now – almost a week after that crazy night in Natal – with a swollen and slightly crooked nose and one straight line of gash beneath his left eye. Dempsey will play, and Dempsey will be great.