In the first match of the so called “Group of Death” (Group G, along with Brazil and North Korea), Portugal and Ivory Coast were unable to score or deliver any type of excitement to the fans crowding the Nelson Mandela stadium, under pouring rain.
One of the key questions before the game was whether Didier Drogba would play or not, still recovering from an arm injury. As it turned out, Drogba was billed as medically fit but Sven-Goran Eriksson decided to bench him for the start of the game. Drogba would join the game in the 66th minute, but was basically a non-factor.
The biggest star on the Portuguese side, Cristiano Ronaldo, was also a non-factor. One of the best chances in the game came off his right foot in the 11th minute (a thundering shot from outside the box which hit the right post of the African goal), but that was basically the entirety of Ronaldo’s contribution to the Portuguese game.
This chance in the 11th minute was also the biggest chance in the game, as it turned out. Both sides brought a conservative approach and markings and defenses were tight and disciplined throughout the entire game.
The Ivory Coast team was able to control the game in the latter part of the first half and also in the beginning of the second half, with some good ball movement and fast runs, but never having real chances to score. In the latter part of the second half some African players started to have physical problems, fatigue and cramps, and Portugal took control of the ball with a slightly increased sense of urgency, especially after Simão and Tiago came in. Raúl Meireles had a good shot from outside the box which went slightly wide (arguably the best shot in the entire second half) and the Portuguese side also saw a goal being rightfully disallowed.
The last chance in the game belonged to the Africans with Drogba shooting wide, inside the box, after a good play. All in all the goalless tie was a fair result in a rather lackluster match.
Portugal lacked the “punch” and objectivity it has shown in previous competitions and Ivory Coast showed enough poise to be a factor in this group.
Some key Portuguese players didn’t have the performance their team needs them to: Liedson (left alone without support; too short and thin to deal with the Ivory Coast defenders), Deco (slow), Ronaldo, Danny (Carlos Queiroz will probably start Atlético Madrid’s Simão in his place for the next match). On the other end, the entire defensive unit was solid, especially Fábio Coentrão.
Ivory Coast had Gervinho and Touré as their best players; a healthy Drogba will give them an added offensive factor though.
Next for Portugal: on the 21st of June they square off against North Korea. Make no doubt about it: this is theoretically the easiest (or the least dangerous, as you prefer) opponent Portugal has in this group but they are also coming in with added pressure, as the Europeans have to win this game if they are to advance. Will Ronaldo show up?
Next for Ivory Coast: on the 20th of June they face mighty Brazil. With a tie against Portugal (1 point) they will somehow try to get more points against Brazil (even a tie would be an upset). They will also try to get Drogba in full game shape for this one.