Of all the matches played in all of Europe on Wednesday, and amid all the nations jostling for position in some hefty, elongated World Cup qualifying groups, the failings of Portugal stick out like a sore thumb. A rickety 0-0 draw with Albania was akin to a thumb in the eye for their ravaged coach Carlos Queiroz. Against a side who rampaged around Braga for the best part of an hour with 10 men, Portugal managed to get away a glorious 26 shots, but ended up in a state of nothingness.
Portugal appeared to seize up in losing to Germany in the last eight of the European Championship in June. Luiz Felipe Scolari escaped to Chelsea after that loss, but the malady lingers on. A 3-2 home defeat to Denmark and a 0-0 draw in Sweden has wounded their collective pride over the past month, and now they have failed to override Albania, despite being blessed with home advantage. Cristiano Ronaldo, for all he shimmers with Manchester United, is not Eusebio, and, in a Portuguese shirt, he is not even Luis Figo.
He was too predictable against Germany, too much of a maverick to justify being captain of his country. In his second match at national level since ankle surgery, he proved ineffectual. His most telling contribution against Albania was his involvement in the sending off of the visiting player Admir Teli, whose forearm contacted Ronaldo's face. Like Ronaldinho of Brazil he is an engaging entertainer, but the one-man circus act is only worthy if it gains applause, and brings with it victory. Portugal were roundly derided at the end. Albania whooped it up, as you would expect of a side ranked as the world's 83rd best, but it must be said that Portugal now find themselves in trouble, level with Albania and two points behind Denmark and Hungary as the natural order of Group One is disrupted.
It could have got scarier for them if Miguel was not around to clear Ervin Bulku's effort off the line in the first half. Not all of Europe's chirpier countries are finding such insanity touching their outings. Marcello Lippi is aware of his place in the history of Italy's national team. In his second spell as head coach of the Azzurri, Lippi has equalled the record of Vittorio Pozzo. Pozzo helped Italy win two World Cups, and gleaned the gold medal from an Olympic Games in the 1930s. A 2-1 win over Montenegro gave Italy three points, and Lippi a record-equalling 30th match unbeaten in international climes.
"To be compared to a legend like Pozzo is fantastic," he said. "Thirty consecutive results is like a season and it has run through World Cup glory and an attempt to renew the team." Italy lead Group Eight and are unbeaten after four games. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org