Portugal are hoping to kickstart their qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup on a positive note as they welcome Azerbaijan on Wednesday.

Reigning champions of the Euros 2016 Portugal will kickstart the qualifying campaign for the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup on Wednesday, as they take on Azerbaijan at the Allianz Stadium in Turin.

The Covid-19 restrictions in respective countries have forced the authorities to move the game to Italy, with Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo playing a crucial role in advocating for the venue that usually serves as the home stadium for his club Juventus.

Nevertheless, starting on a positive note could be critical for Portugal, who have been drawn in Group A that includes potentially tricky and strong opponents like Serbia and the Republic of Ireland. It also has Luxembourg although they serve as the minnows of this particular group, where finishing first will lead to a direct entry into the main stage of the World Cup.

It is a prize Azerbaijan will certainly be looking for, although it is going to be a humongous task for them to overcome the challenges of footballing giants like Portugal, Ireland and Serbia. On Wednesday, they could potentially have the opportunity to make a statement by sealing at least a point against Ronaldo’s men and draw an early blow in this first international break of 2021.

Here, at The Hard Tackle, we will run the rule over these two nations ahead of their crucial 2022 World Cup qualifying stage fixture this midweek.

Team News &ย Tactics

Portugal

There have been notable omissions from Fernando Santos’ 25-man squad, including Andre Gomes, Nelson Semedo and William Carvalho. Rui Patricio was initially called up but has been ruled out due to a head injury. Another key player in Raphael Guerreiro is yet to recover from a knock he picked up against Bayern Munich and is unlikely to feature on Wednesday.

Guerreiro’s absence, though, should pave the way for the exciting Nuno Mendes to make his debut for the national team at left-back while Joao Cancelo remains favourite on the opposite flank, ahead of Cedric Soares.ย Cancelo’s fellow Manchester City teammate Ruben Dias is another automatic pick at centre-back, alongside Jose Fonte, thus forming the four-man backline of Santos’ preferred 4-3-3 setup.

It will be imperative for Portugal to control the game against lowly Azerbaijan if they are to avoid a shock this midweek. As such, the midfielders are set to play a vital role in helping them maintain that control, with Santos likely to prefer the in-form Danilo Pereira in holding midfield, with additional support from Joao Moutinho and Bruno Fernandes.

Moutinho should operate in a more versatile role, oscillating between a number six and a number eight while Fernandes should feature as an out and out number ten, offering the creative supply in that vacant attacking midfield slot, sandwiched between the two wingers in Pedro Neto and Joao Felix.

The Portuguese attack, though, could be led by Andre Silva ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, who will likely be rested in light of the upcoming game against Serbia. Bernardo Silva, too, isย another option that could be reserved for the tie against the Serbians, knowing the fact they’re arguably the second strongest team in the group.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3):ย Lopes; Cancelo, Dias, Fonte, Mendes; Moutinho, Danilo, Fernandes; Neto, Silva, Felix

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Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan certainly doesn’t have the star-studded lineup Portugal has in long supply. They are, though, led by the highly competent and long-serving Qarabag right-back in Maksim Medvedev. He will be key in marshalling the Azerbaijani backline against the potential onslaught from the Portuguese team this midweek.

It will be a challenge for the Azerbaijani players to quickly settle into coach Giovanni De Biasi’s methods, although fortunately, the Italian prefers a 4-4-2 that the nation used in their last recognised international match against Luxembourg back in November of last year.

Nevertheless, the 4-4-2 should see the two banks of four providing protection for goalkeeperย Emil Balayev while the likes of Qara Qarayev and Vuqar Mustafayev man the midfield, although De Biasi does have the option of deploying Ismayil Ibrahimli should he require a more creative presence in the middle of the park.

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani attack should be spearheaded by Mahir Emreli and Ramil Sheyadaev, although it will be interesting to see how these two plan to get past the solid Portuguese defence this midweek. It appears set-pieces opportunities are the best option for the visitors to find a breakthrough.

Probable Lineup (4-4-2):ย Balayev; Medvedev,ย Huseynov, Badalov, Kryvotsiuk; Huseynov, Qarayev, Mustafayev, Salahly; Emreli, Sheyadaev

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Key Stats

  • Azerbaijan are goalless in their last four matches in all competitions. Their last goal came in the 1-0 win over Cyprus with captain Maksim Medvedev scoring the winner.
  • Portugal have scored three or more goals in a single match in seven of their last 12 games in all competitions.
  • Only Cyprus had lower points in Azerbaijan’s group in the UEFA Nations League, although they did manage a shutout in the last three matches of the group stage.
  • Portugal have secured four wins in six matches, although both the failed attempts came against France, in the UEFA Nations League.
  • Portugal’s Eintracht Frankfurt striker Andre Silva is one of Bundesliga’s highest scorers while Ronaldo is the top scorer in the Serie A this season.

Player to Watch

Andre Silva

AVEIRO, PORTUGAL - OCTOBER 07: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal celebrates with his team mate Andre Silva after scoring his team's fourth goal during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Portugal and Andorra at Estadio Municipal de Aveiro on October 7, 2016 in Aveiro, Portugal. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Can Andre Silva replace Ronaldo this midweek?ย (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Amid all the Ronaldo, Felix, and Fernandes, if there is one player who is looking forward to this international break more than others – it is Andre Silva.

The Eintracht Frankfurt striker, formerly of AC Milan, has a vicious scoring record for his country, netting 16 goals in just 37 appearances – making him quite an asset for Portugal in front of goal, especially in the likely absence of Ronaldo that is surely going to stifle the team’s attacking prowess.

Therefore, the onus will be on Silva, who has been linked with Barcelona, to provide the goods in the final third, using his positional sense and ability to latch onto any cross from the far side. He can link-up with teammates quite well, too – making him the player worth keeping an eye on this midweek.

Prediction

Portugal 4-0 Azerbaijan

Boasting a truly world-class unit, Portugal are the undisputed favourites heading into this game against the minnows Azerbaijan. Their plethora of attacking, midfield and defensive talent are guaranteed to prove too much for the opposition, with the reigning Euro 2016 champions likely to kickstart their qualifying campaign with a convincing 4-0 win on Wednesday.

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