Golden opportunity awaits as US prepares for Portugal
MANAUS, Brazil – Halfway through his news conference Saturday at Arena da Amazonia, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann excused himself when two players entered to field questions. He was supposed to stay a bit longer, but with a personal and professional interest in Group G’s other game, Klinsmann hustled to find a TV showing the final moments of Germany’s 2-2 draw with Ghana.
Everything in the group stage of the World Cup is interwoven, with a result 1,500 miles away affecting teams preparing for their games 24 hours later. Such was the case Saturday as the favored Germans settled for one point, opening a glorious chance for the U.S. to seize first place Sunday evening with a victory over Portugal.
After watching the end of the other match, an outcome that left Germany just a point ahead of the United States, Klinsmann returned to the conference room.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us, and we will definitely go for it,” the former German scoring ace said. “It’s going to be a very dramatic group.”
Six days after defeating Ghana, the U.S. now controls its fortunes in attempting to secure one of the group’s two places in the round of 16. The task remains formidable, with the sport’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, awaiting in stifling Manaus and Germany on the agenda Thursday in Recife.
The United States will need to claim between one and three points from the last two games to advance.
“This is a massive game, a turning point for us,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “If we can win the game, we put ourselves in the next round. … If we can win and take care of business, the rest is history. It’s exciting.”
Coming off a 4-0 loss to Germany on Monday, Portugal is ripe for the taking.
Center back Pepe is serving a red-card suspension. His teammate from European champion Real Madrid, left-sided defender Fabio Coentrao, is sidelined with a groin injury. Forward Hugo Almeida went down with a thigh ailment. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio is suffering from a thigh injury. And Coach Paulo Bento will not make a decision until game day about defender Bruno Alves, who did not practice Saturday because of a sore leg.
“I know we are in a difficult situation,” Bento said. “We either win or we will start packing our suitcase and go home.”
Ronaldo, the world player of the year from Real Madrid, also has struggled with injuries but played 90 minutes against Germany and is expected to start Sunday.
He also has a new hairstyle:
While the U.S. appreciates Ronaldo’s extraordinary talent, they say they have implemented plans to both contain the superstar and impose their own game.
“There is a lot of admiration for Cristiano,” Klinsmann said. “But this is now the moment you can prove yourself. This is the moment where you can step up and play those guys and put them in place. We want to put Cristiano and his team in place.”
The United States has a history of putting Portugal in place. Twelve years ago, in a group opener in South Korea, the U.S. stunned the favorites with three early goals and posted a 3-2 victory — the beginning of the U.S. team’s run to the quarterfinals and Portugal’s first-round failure with what was considered its golden generation, led by Luis Figo.
Despite Portugal’s long list of absences, the U.S. recognizes the dangers presented by not only Ronaldo but Raul Meireles and Manchester United’s Nani.
“Portugal is not only one player,” midfielder Jermaine Jones cautioned.
Howard added: “Of course, [Ronaldo] is the main man, probably the main man of this tournament, so we have to know where he is, but he is not the only one.”
The pressure, though, is mounting on Portugal, and during his media briefing Saturday, Bento seemed irritated by the line of questioning from his country’s critical press corps.
Conversely, Klinsmann exuded unbridled eagerness.
“We’ve been looking forward to this moment for quite a while,” he said. “We want to take our game to Portugal. We are full of energy. We are very impatient. We want to get this started.”
With Jozy Altidore, the U.S. team’s only pure striker, out with a hamstring injury, Klinsmann will have to adjust his lineup. It remains unclear whether he will replace Altidore with Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski or use captain Clint Dempsey as the lone forward and stuff the midfield with five players.
Dempsey was cleared to play after breaking his nose against Ghana. Center back Matt Besler is likely to start after missing the second half of the opener with hamstring tightness.
The weather outlook in this remote city of more than 1 million nestled in the Amazon region calls for an evening game-time temperature near 80, high humidity and a chance of rain — not unlike the climate the U.S. encountered routinely for World Cup qualifiers in Central America and the Caribbean the previous two years.
The climate, though, is a small consideration in the way of Klinsmann’s larger ambitions.
“We believe we have the quality to beat Portugal,” he said. “Will it be very difficult? Absolutely.”
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