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Newcomers coming through for Portugal in European Championship

Newcomers coming through for Portugal in European Championship

The young and the old are blending nicely for Portugal at the European Championship.
The Portuguese beat Turkey 2-0 in the opener Saturday, relying on the solid play of the veterans and the goals from the rookies. And now, a squad mixing the experience of players like Nuno Gomes and Simao Sabrosa with the youth of Pepe and Joao Moutinho, faces the Czech Republic Wednesday with a chance to virtually secure a second-round berth.
Eight veterans from Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup were on the starting lineup against Turkey, but the goals came from newcomers Pepe and Raul Meireles, who were making their debut in a major competition.
Portugal came to Switzerland and Austria with 11 of the players that made the 2004 squad which finished runner-up to Greece. And 12 players were back from the squad that was eliminated by France in the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup.
"That squad had very high standards," 21-year-old midfielder Joao Moutinho said. "This is a new group, but with good players and a will to win."
It is Portugal's first major competition since Luis Figo and veteran striker Pauleta _ the nation's all-time leading scorer _ retired from the national team after the fourth-place finish at the World Cup in Germany. The squad already was without longtime regulars Rui Costa and Fernando Couto, who left after the Euro 2004.
"The youngsters are new to European tournaments and World Cups, but they already have a lot of experience with their clubs," 29-year-old left back Paulo Ferreira said. "It's their first time here but it doesn't mean they don't have the experience."
Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had to revamp the squad and began calling up young promises such as Pepe, Moutinho and Jose Bosingwa.
The coach maintained the veterans at the core of his starting lineup, but is slowly implementing changes and giving opportunities to the youngsters.
The three newcomers who started Saturday _ Pepe, Bosingwa and Joao Moutinho _ together have 27 international appearances.
Without Figo and Pauleta, Scolari named five players as captains for the European tournament _ Nuno Gomes, Ronaldo, Armando Petit, Simao Sabrosa and Ricardo Carvalho. Together they have nearly 300 international appearances.
Ronaldo _ touted as one of the tournament's top star _ is on a category of his own, providing both youth and experience. He has 56 international appearances despite being only 23 years old, and was a member of the Portuguese squads both in the Euro 2004 and in the 2006 World Cup.
The team's most experienced player in Switzerland and Austria is goalkeeper Ricardo, with 76 international matches.
Before the European tournament started, there were doubts whether Scolari's changed squad would be able to perform well in Switzerland and Austria.
Some fans and part of the local media were skeptical after Portugal struggled in qualifying for the European competition, finishing with a 7-6-1 record and advancing only after a dramatic scoreless home draw against Finland in its last match. The campaign included a 1-1 draw at Armenia, a team that lost seven of its 12 matches.
The impressive win against Turkey seemed to erase some of that skepticism.
"(The inexperience) was not a factor for me or for the other players," Moutinho said. "This group will show that it is strong and continue in this competition with the same attitude from the first game."
Portugal practiced Monday afternoon in a session closed to fans and only partially open to the media. Scolari talked with the group for about 15 minutes before players underwent physical drills.
On Sunday, the team received a warm reception from the 12,000 Portuguese fans who packed La Maladiere stadium to watch its first practice session after the victory over the Turks.
The Portuguese are playing in the final phase of the European competition for the fifth time. Last tournament's appearance in the championship match marked its best performance so far.