Young Andre Silva has made an excellent start to his international career, coming into Saturday night’s World Cup qualifier against Andorra having tallied seven goals and one assist in his previous eight qualifying games.
So it didn’t raise too many eyebrows when manager Fernando Santos, who decided to rest Cristiano Ronaldo for this fixture, entrusted Silva with the responsibility of leading the line for Portugal in Andorra.
It ended up being a mixed bag from the young AC Milan forward, who impressed with his skill and his poise on the ball, but couldn’t find his scoring touch, forcing Santos to bring Ronaldo on at halftime – a move that ended up benefitting Silva as well, although he was lucky he wasn’t the one being brought off for Portugal’s talisman.
Here’s a look at Silva’s performance in Portugal’s 2-0 win.
Against stubborn, defensive opponents, Silva found freedom to roam at the head of Portugal’s attack, often popping up on either wing or dropping deep to get on the ball. It was a performance that was both industrious and skillful, but Silva forgot his finishing boots.
He had his chances to score before halftime, and had he done so, Ronaldo wouldn’t have needed to come in and save the day.
33rd min CHANCE: Presented with a glorious chance to open the scoring – easily Portugal’s best chance of what had been a frustrating first half up to that point – Silva fluffed his lines.
The Milan forward, from yards out, actually caught a falling ball out of the air with a perfect volley – except for the fact that it went yards over the crossbar, when he really should have scored.
82nd min CHANCE: At this point, with Ronaldo having come on and scored, some of the pressure had been lifted off Silva’s shoulders, but he was still looking for a goal to erase the frustrations of his night.
Ronaldo gave him one on a platter, teeing Silva up after some good work on the right wing. only for the 21-year-old to blaze over from close range.
86th min GOAL: At long last, Silva’s wait for a goal came to an end. It was again down to Ronaldo, who changed the game completely after coming on at halftime. The Real Madrid star sent in a teasing cross from the left, and right-back Danilo’s header back across goal set Silva up for a tap-in.
What was impressive was Silva’s movement to get in that position – when Ronaldo crossed from the wing, Silva was almost right next to him, yet like any good striker he used his movement to find space in the box so that when Danilo’s header came to him, he was two yards out with no one marking him.
Silva came into this game having scored 9 goals in 15 senior starts for Portugal, so Santos was justified in starting him against perceived weaker opponents in Andorra and allowing Ronaldo to rest up for next week’s crucial clash against Switzerland.
However, the young forward didn’t do enough to repay his manager’s faith in him. He led the line well and found pockets of space to exploit, but his finishing let him down as he passed up chance after chance until there was finally one he couldn’t miss.
As they say for strikers, all that matters is the goals.
Omar al-Soma buried a late penalty as war-torn Syria drew 1-1 with Australia to put their two-legged World Cup play-off on a knife-edge on Thursday.
Australia were within sight of victory after Robbie Kruse’s first-half goal, but when Mathew Leckie nudged Soma on 84 minutes the towering forward made no mistake from the spot.
It sets up a nerve-wracking second leg in Sydney on Tuesday, with the eventual winners going into another play-off with a CONCACAF federation team for a spot at Russia 2018.
Syria, playing their ‘home’ games in Malaysia because of the civil war raging in their country, are pursuing their dream of playing their first World Cup, while Asian champions Australia are trying to reach their fourth in a row.
Both teams made a cagey start in front of a sparse but Syrian-dominated crowd in sultry conditions at the Hang Jebat Stadium, a low-key setting for such an important game.
Mark Milligan’s fizzing shot with the outside of his left boot tested Mahmoud al-Youssef on 19 minutes, while Soma provided Syria’s chief threat at the other end.
Matthew Leckie blasted over on 29 minutes before Soma twice set up Omar Khribin for opportunities that the in-form Al Hilal striker put wide of the Australian goal.
Five minutes before half-time, Leckie created Australia’s opener when he received a ball down the right from Milos Degenek, cut inside and arrowed a shot which went in off the boot of Kruse.
After the break, Tomi Juric was unlucky to see his shot come back off the woodwork – and even unluckier when, bizarrely, he crashed the rebound off the same post.
But Syria were looking dangerous and Khribin had a shot blocked by Leckie, before Soma headed a good chance over and was then denied an almost certain goal by Degenek’s last-ditch lunge.
As the game headed into the final quarter, Ouday Jaffal had a close-range free kick cleared off the line and Khribin’s deflected set piece sailed just wide.
Syria should have been level on 78 minutes but Soma’s point-blank header was deflected onto the post in a reflex stop by Socceroos ‘keeper Mathew Ryan.
The critical moment came with six minutes to go, when Leckie made contact mid-air with Soma and Iranian referee Alireza Faghani pointed to the spot.
In the dying moments, Trent Sainsbury had a close-range header saved and Ryan clawed away a Moayad al-Ajan shot, but they shared the spoils to set up Tuesday’s tense decider in Sydney.
Gareth Bale will miss Wales’ final two Group D World Cup qualifiers, leaving Dragons fans agonising and Irish supporters rejoicing – but the Welsh wizard’s absence might well prove to be a blessing in disguise.
On first glance it’s the worst possible time for Bale’s latest injury woes to have hit – the 28-year-old is ruled out until likely the play-offs with an injured calf.
Chris Coleman’s side face two crucial games against Georgia (Friday) before they welcome the Republic of Ireland for what should prove to be a mouthwatering crescendo to European qualifying at the Cardiff City Stadium on Monday.
They’re a gritty, passionate nation the Welsh, but at such a pivotal point on the road to Russia, can they really hope to navigate their way to six points without the big game experience of the Real Madrid superstar?
The answer is yes. Rather than wallow, Wales should be galvanised by the injury to their supposed talisman – whose undoubted importance to the men in red shouldn’t distract attention from some stellar members of Bale’s supporting cast.
Yes, statistics show Wales have won just nine per cent of games (11) under Coleman without Bale – compared to 24 per cent overall, while the figure for wins is 48 per cent both under Coleman and overall.
But that is to gloss over the contributions of Wales’ other talents – like midfield dynamo Aaron Ramsey and versatile defender Ben Davies.
Bale was an absolute phenom as Wales powered to a place at Euro 2016 – the first time Wales had graced a major tournament in nearly six decades, since a 17-year-old Pele scored the only goal as Brazil knocked them out of the 1958 World Cup in the quarter-finals.
He rocketed in seven of Wales’ 11 goals during qualifying and directly contributed to nine in total – but in eight games in Group D his influence has waned as he endured an injury-hit 2016/17 campaign for both Wales and Los Blancos.
He’s still netted four goals and an assist but that’s only five of 12 goals he’s contributed to, with two games still left to play. He hasn’t registered in either of Wales’ last four games – with Arsenal’s Ramsey rising to the occasion and scoring two goals in that period.
Despite injuries preventing his Madrid outings, Bale has only missed one game during qualifying. But he’s often struggled to impact proceedings with teams man or double marking him out of games, or finding himself isolated up front as oppositions pack their defence.
Even though his rich form throughout the previous qualifying campaign continued into the European Championships, it was Ramsey who was truly key to Wales’ stunning run to the semi-finals.
And it was the absence of the Gunners’ schemer that was really telling as Wales finally ran out of firepower in a 2-0 defeat to eventual champions Portugal.
He’s been terrific but it’s not as if ‘Rambo’ – as Ramsey is affectionately known – has been a one-man army for Wales. Hal Robson-Kanu, Joe Allen and Sam Vokes have all made key contributions during qualifying this time around.
There was also a dream debut for rising teenage talent Ben Woodburn – the 17-year-old Liverpool prospect announced himself to the world with the winning goal off the bench against Austria last month that sparked Wales’ Russia dream back into life following five successive draws.
Tottenham left-back Ben Davies, one of the form players of the early Premier League season, has long been a key cog in the Wales machine and may also be deployed in a more attacking role by Coleman over the course of the next few days.
That’s not to say Bale won’t be missed – and despite being second in the group, one point ahead of Ireland, Wales find themselves in a precarious position.
One of UEFA’s nine second-placed teams misses out on a play-off spot and Wales – with eight points against the teams ranked first to fifth in the group – are currently ninth alongside Bosnia and Herzegovina (who occupy eighth by virtue of a superior goal difference).
So there’s work to do for Wales. But should they secure a play-off berth, how much of a boost would that be, in addition to the prospect of welcoming Bale, the man for the big occasion, back into the fold for a two-legged do or die tie for a place at a first World Cup in 60 years?