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Portuguese with much to prove in tough group

Fans of the Selecao are still reeling at the near miss by the team of 2004, when unfancied Greece spoiled the party in Lisbon in the nearest the Portuguese have come to international glory.

Figo and friends, tipped for top honours after under-20 World Cup successes in both 1989 and 1991, had been expected to turn on the style and show their rivals, including then under-achieving neighbours Spain, the way to glory.

But the final defeat crushed home expectations and sent the Portuguese, who had banked on flair winning the day, back to the drawing board.

Eight years on and the talismanic presence of Cristiano Ronaldo notwithstanding, most observers expect a more cautious approach from coach Paulo Bento, a tough defensive midfielder in his day who won domestic honours with Sporting Lisbon.

Portugal could hardly have asked for a tougher group: their Group B rivals — Germnay, the Netherlands and Denmark — are all former competition winners.

For a side which only crawled through the back door of the playoffs to qualify at Bosnia’s expense, even getting through the group stage looks a daunting prospect.

Bento took over as national team coach from the sacked Carlos Queiroz early in the qualifying campaign, steering them to runner-up spot before seeing off Bosnia in the playoffs.

A subsequent thrashing of world champions Spain — albeit in a friendly — added credit to Bento’s ledger, particularly given that the Spanish had dumped the Portuguese out of the last World Cup.

But their most recent outing was an unimpressive goalless stalemate last against tournament co-hosts Poland.

Portugal will clearly have to step up a gear if they are to get the better of tournament favourites Germany in Lviv on June 9, where they also take on Denmark four days later before a final match against the Netherlands at Kharkiv on June 17.

"Getting through to the knockout stage is a tough call," admitted Bento, who was suspended with Xavier and Nuno Gomes in the 2000 tournament for jostling the Austrian referee in a controversial 2-1 semi-final defeat to eventual winners France.

With the attacking flair of Ronaldo and Manchester United’s occasionally mercurial Nani to call on, the Portuguese should carry a threat. Yet a defence which leaked four goals to Cyprus in a home qualifier must rank as suspect.

Against the Dutch, most fans will hope flair can outflank brawn while also producing a similar result the last time the two faced off, at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

On that occasion a record 16 yellow and four red cards were shown as the Portuguese advanced.

Bento will announce his squad on May 14 in the town of Obidos.