Cristiano Ronaldo will look to steer Portugal to the unlikeliest of World Cup wins, if only to win the biggest trophy eluding him.
Portugal almost missed out on the biggest sporting event in the world; a play-off win against Sweden eventually ensured they would make the trip to Brazil. The qualifying campaign for Paulo Bento’s side was pretty average as A Seleção mostly flattered to deceive, and consequently finished runners up to Russia by a solitary point. However with the doors nearly closing in on them, Bento’s side – riding on the brilliance of their outstanding captain, the one and only Cristiano Ronaldo – did just enough to secure their berth for the showdown in Brazil.
When the Portuguese manager announced his 23 man roster for the tournament, it was met with a general nod of assent with possibly just a couple of strange exclusions.
GK: Eduardo, Rui Patricio, Beto
Defence: André Almeida, Neto, Bruno Alves, Fábio Coentrão, João Pereira, Pepe, Ricardo Costa
Midfield: João Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles, Rúben Amorim, William Carvalho
Attack: Rafa, Cristiano Ronaldo, Éder, Hélder Postiga, Hugo Almeida, Nani, Varela, Vierinha
The exclusion of Quaresma although expected in many circles, nevertheless created a bit of a stir. Cédric Soares, the Sporting right back could have been included in the squad as the youngster has been one of the better players in the Portuguese league this season. Other notable exclusions include Anthony Lopes, Nelson Oliveira and Adrien. Paulo Bento probably already knows his starting eleven, and he isn’t one to experiment especially at this juncture.
It would be blasphemous to exclude Cristiano Ronaldo from a conversation about Portugal’s strengths. The Real Madrid star, on form, is the best player in the world, arguably. Also, his exploits against Sweden in the play-off only served to reassert his importance to the national side. Ronaldo is coming off a memorable season with Real Madrid, capping it off with a win in the Champions League final. The former Manchester United winger is now on the cusp of greatness; he stands on the edge of immortality hoping to have one more crack at winning the biggest prize in football. Deliver in Brazil, at the biggest stage of all and his place in the history of the beautiful game alongside the likes of Maradona, Pele and Zidane would be secured. Cristiano Ronaldo is a driven athlete; his time is here and now.
The Portuguese defense could also be considered one of their areas of strengths, with the likes of Pepe and Fábio Coentrão having stellar seasons with Madrid. Pepe and Bruno Alves are expected to be the Center Back pairing, although not selecting Inter’s Rolando in the 23 man squad, after the season he has had, could be a rare goof-up by the manager. Nevertheless, Portugal look solid at the back and with the midfield shield protecting the back four, they will always be difficult to break down.
Joa Moutinho is the lynchpin of Bento’s side. If Ronaldo is the lungs and guts, well Moutinho is surely the heartbeat. Everything flows through the Monaco man and he is at the heart of all those breathtaking counter attacks. Moutinho will be partnered by the duo of Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso. Between the three, there is enough steel, creativity and a range of international experience. There are suggestions that Bento should start William Carvalho in place of Veloso, but it looks unlikely that the manager would tinker with his established trio. Carvalho’s rise to prominence has got the attention of European heavyweights, among them Manchester United.
Portugal’s bugbear for quite some time now has been the absence of a quality center forward. Veterans Hugo Almeida and Hélder Postiga are yet again the likely candidates and they seem to have been around for ages. Helder Postiga will likely start and at the age of 31 he offers nothing more than industry, even if he does have 27 international goals to his credit. Almeida, on the other hand has had a better league season than Postiga but in an inferior Turkish league. Either ways it is slim pickings, and it could all come down to Ronaldo as far as scoring goals is concerned.
Another concern for Portugal is the lack of game changing options that can come off the bench. There is hardly any attacking talent coming through the ranks and it is almost all up to the starting eleven to deliver. William Carvalho, if he doesn’t start, is the sole exception – he gives the manager an option to strengthen their midfield if Portugal needs to hold on to a lead.
With most European sides having to adapt to the climes of Brazil and the cultural difference, Portugal should feel at home. Portuguese is the favored language in the country and the players should feel at home with the Brazilian way of life.
A Seleção have over the years performed admirably on the biggest stage. The pressure of playing at an international tournament for their national side often brings the best out of a lot of Portuguese players. Invariably Portugal have met expectations and often surpassed them. Furthermore, there aren’t too many star names, with Ronaldo being the exception of course and the team is tailored to bring out the best out of their main man. Moutinho promises to be the dark horse of the team, with him set to ply his trade away from the focus that will almost exclusively be on his more famous teammate and captain.
Bento’s side is placed in a very tough group with one of the tournament favorites Germany. Furthermore, USA and Ghana are no pushovers either and there are literally no easy matches in the group stage for the Portuguese. Their first match itself is against Low’s highly favored Germans and a bad result could set the alarm bells ringing. If Portugal finish second behind Germany in the group, they could be in line to face the tournament dark horse Belgium, although Russia might have something do about it.
Another major threat to Portugal is injuries to key players. Portugal have a very good starting eleven but their replacements are not of the same quality. The fitness of Ronaldo and Moutinho are, therefore, pivotal to Portugal’s progress.