A Portuguese side itching to return to competitive action and impress home fans should be one of the main contenders for Euro 2004, despite a run of unconvincing performances in friendly internationals.
"The minimum I'm asking of my players is a place in the semi-finals," Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said recently. "It would be a tremendous frustration not to get at least to the last four.
"Winning the tournament will be difficult but it's not impossible."
Scolari knows all about leading an under-performing bunch of talented players to international glory, after winning the 2002 World Cup with a Brazil side that almost missed out on qualification.
After masterminding that record fifth World Cup win for Brazil, "Big Phil" took over the Portuguese national team in 2003 and has now been in charge for more than a year, with a record of seven victories, five draws and two defeats.
Most of the team's performances in those games have ranged from workmanlike to terrible. Worst, notably, was a 3-0 defeat at home to neighbours Spain last September.
"We made of lot of mistakes in positioning and playing into space," Scolari admitted after that game. "We made many bad passes and Spain gave us a tough time."
There have been occasional moments of brilliance, too, including a 2-1 home win over Brazil, and Scolari deserves credit for restoring the side's morale following their shock first-round exit from the World Cup.
A recent 1-1 draw against England, potential quarter-final rivals at Euro 2004, gave more cause for optimism than alarm, as Scolari's side enjoyed much the better of the game before a slew of second-half substitutions ruined the spectacle.
There were few mistakes from a defence considered to be the side's problem area while the front four of Luis Figo, Pauleta, Simao Sabrosa and Rui Costa caused the England defence problems.
But the players were booed from the pitch after their 2-1 defeat to Italy on March 31. They have failed in all seven of their attempts to beat Euro 2004 finalists since Scolari took over.
The Portuguese squad for Euro 2004 will be based, almost certainly for the last time, around the country's golden generation who won World Youth Championships in 1989 and 1991.
Real Madrid forward Figo originally hinted that he would end his international career after Euro 2004, although he has since said he would not rule out playing on.
Other regulars from the same generation, such as Lazio defender Fernando Couto and AC Milan playmaker Rui Costa, have yet to comment on the future but all are past 30 and unlikely to be around if Portugal qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
Scolari will have other top-class players to call on for Euro 2004, including marksman Pauleta, wingers Sergio Conceicao and Simao Sabrosa, and defender Jorge Andrade, as well as the immensely promising Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United.
The team for the tournament's opening game against Greece on June 12 should be similar to the side that drew with England in Faro in February.
Figo celebrated his 100th full international appearance in that game with a lively performance up front, while Pauleta demonstrated his growing stature with a classy
goal from a free kick to make it five scoring games in succession.
He also scored in the 2-2 home draw with Sweden in
Scolari's main worry has been a lack of clout in front
of goal but if Pauleta continues in that sort of form
Portugal, who can expect enthusiastic support throughout
the tournament, could prove difficult to stop.
It is 20 years since France in 1984 became the last host
country to win the European title and with the exception
of Belgium, who co-hosted the finals with the
Netherlands four years ago, the hosts have gone out in
West Germany (1988), Sweden (1992), England (1996) and
the Netherlands (2000) failed to make the final. For
Portugal to do so and win it would not only end a trend
but also earn the Golden Generation a lasting place in
Figo is cutting it fine in his quest
to land a first major title at full
international level for Portugal,
but Euro 2004 may yet provide the
31-year-old with the crowning moment
of his career.
Figo has won just about every honour available
to at club level and was named FIFA World Player of the Year in 2001.
He has won more than 100 caps and has done more as an ambassador for Portuguese football than any player since the great Eusebio. This will be his last, and best, chance to claim the major title that has always eluded him and his country...
has his eye on second miracle
|Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari can confirm his reputation as a miracle worker and complete a remarkable collection of titles when he leads host nation Portugal at Euro 2004 next month.
Portugal need the Brazilian to perform an even greater transformation than he managed with his home country in 2002, when he turned a side that had almost failed to qualify for the finals into World Cup winners for the fifth time.
The difference this time is that Scolari's Brazil side had not only players of the calibre of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho, but also a confidence underpinned by a glorious history.
Portugal have yet to chalk up a single major triumph at full international level despite producing a string of world-class players used to winning honours with Europe's top clubs.
Scolari's golden touch goes back a long way, however, after successes with Kuwait in the Gulf Cup and Brazilian clubs Palmeiras and Gremio in South America's Libertadores Cup.
"I can't come to Portugal thinking I won't be in the Euro 2004 final," he said shortly after taking the job.
"After winning the Gulf Cup, the Libertadores Cup and the World Cup, I think the European Nations Cup is the one that's missing."
After going down 1-0 in Italy in his first game, Scolari had to face criticism from leading players Luis Figo and Rui Costa for calling up naturalised playmaker Deco Souza.
As a coach who withstood pressure to pick the ageing Romario for Brazil, Scolari did not mince his words.
"I'm the one in charge of picking the national team, not them," he said. "Let me say again: whoever wants to can play. If anyone doesn't, the door is open."
Scolari left Figo on the bench for his next game in March, against Brazil and brought on Deco, who scored the winner in Portugal's 2-1 home win.
Although Scolari won a hatful of major titles at club level in Brazil he also built up a reputation for employing physical violence and gamesmanship.
He was frequently sent off from the touchline for arguing and even fighting and publicly encouraged his players to foul the opposition.
Some commentators dubbed it "bully-boy football" but at the World Cup Scolari showed himself to be a cunning and pragmatic coach, able to adapt his tactics as each match required.
Above all, he demonstrated his winning touch. If that quality can rub off on his new team, Portugal will have made a wise decision indeed in their choice of coach.