Scouting Portugal: Takeaways for the US from opponent’s final preparations

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Portugal’s final World Cup preparation match on Tuesday was more about getting everyone back on the field. Ronaldo returned and proved that he’s fit enough to make an impact, while Raul Meireles returned to the midfield and Pepe earned some minutes at centerback.

United States fans looked on eagerly with an eye on forecasting how Portugal might look against the Americans in their second Group G match on June 22, and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was no doubt among them. But of course, the focus for the United States is first on Monday’s opener against Ghana. Portugal coach Paulo Bento echoed those statements postgame Tuesday — that his team is only first focused on its respective opener against Germany — but Portugal midfielder Nani entertained the question of how his side lines up against the United States.

“We expect a strong team with a mentality and a lot of confidence, but we know we have to do our best and expect ourselves to play that game the best we can,” the winger said after setting up two late goals in the 5-1 win over Ireland.

That’s the common courtesy answer for any opponent, but here’s what the U.S. can take from Portugal’s performance on Tuesday:

— Ronaldo at any sort of fitness will  be dangerous and a handful. That’s obvious statement for the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, but the health of his left knee was in question for some time. It remains a question mark, but Ronaldo at say, 75 percent, last night was enough to torch Ireland on multiple occasions. Sure, it’s Ireland, but it’s also Ronaldo.

— Of particular concern for the U.S. should be Portugal’s left side. Portugal’s second goal came from a beautiful combination between Ronaldo and Fábio Coentrão, who pushed forward with ease all night and eventually was rewarded for one of his overlapping runs with a late goal. That’s a lot of firepower for (potentially) Fabian Johnson to handle on the wing.

— That said, Johnson has done well to get forward over the last two matches against Turkey and Nigeria, and as the U.S. counterattacks he should find space on the wing with Coentrão pushed high. How effectively the United States can find that space on the counterattack will be critical to success against Portugal, who the U.S. shocked in group play at the 2002 World Cup with a 3-2 win, helping send Portugal out in the group stage. An average Ireland side showed on Tuesday that Portugal will give opponent’s opportunities, evidenced by the mental lapse shortly after halftime that led to Ireland’s lone goal.

— Mental lapses are exactly what the Americans must avoid, particularly on set piece. The big body that is Hugo Almeida scored twice Tuesday, needing just 121 seconds to show that he’s an aerial target in the box. The U.S. can sometimes switch off on set pieces and late in matches (see the Nigeria match), and struggles with marking at times (Omar Gonzalez, in particular, if he sees time centrally). Almeida and Ronaldo will make them pay. Bruno Alves hit a game-winner in stoppage time against Mexico on Friday as El Tri took their feet off the pedal a moment too soon.

— Finally, can the U.S. capitalize on a numbers advantage in the midfield? Portugal’s 4-3-3 gives the U.S. the numerical upperhand in the middle of the park — assuming Klinsmann lines up similar to how he did against Nigeria — but Bento’s system is free-flowing, with Meireles often opting to drop deep to distribute and then push forward once possession is firmly established. João Moutinho will also frequently surge forward, which will create further issues for a suspect U.S. backline.

— Oh, and that six-pass piece of brilliance that led to a Nani goal being called back for an offside call? Some of the best combination play you’ll ever see. A flash of what could be for Portugal — and what could be very scary for the United States.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

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In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.