Cristiano's Choir: Portugal World Cup Preview
Final 23-man Squad:
Goalkeepers: Eduardo (Braga), Rui Patrício (Sporting), Beto (Sevilla).
Defenders: Bruno Alves (Fenerbahçe), Pepe and Fabio Coentrão (both Real Madrid), Ricardo Costa and João Pereira (both Valencia), Luis Neto (Zenit Saint Petersburg), André Almeida (Benfica).
Midfielders: Miguel Veloso (Dynamo Kiev), William Carvalho (Sporting), João Moutinho (Monaco), Ruben Amorim (Benfica), Vieirinha (Wolfsburg), Rafa Silva (Braga), Raul Meireles (Fenerbahçe), Nani (Manchester United), Silvestre Varela (Porto).
Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Hugo Almeida (Besiktas), Éder (Braga), Hélder Postiga (Lazio).
Portugal’s Road to Rio:
Before the qualification campaign began, the pairing of Portugal and Russia together in Group F was always going to result in a close race, but the general expectation was that Portugal would finish top of the standings after all the matches were complete. Of course, they had arguably the world’s best footballer at their disposal and several other superstars of the game, but a series of disappointing results meant that they finished in second. The 1-0 loss in Russia was not unexpected; being their hardest match of the group, but a pair of draws against Israel home and away, in addition to being held to 1-1 at home to lowly Northern Ireland, was enough to only secure second place.
The two-legged affair which followed in the play-off round of qualification was one of the best ties in all of World Cup qualifying. It pitted 2 of the game’s greats; Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, against one another, with both knowing that one would not go on to feature in Brazil. The tie was on a knife-edge leading into the second leg, and it was billed as Ronaldo vs Zlatan. Both powerhouses traded blows and Sweden took a 2-1 lead with only 15 minutes to go. However, up stepped Ronaldo with the final 2 goals of his hat-trick to drag his fellow Portugese into the finals, leaving Zlatan nothing more than a bystander. Portugal ran their qualification down to the wire, but in the end it was their talismanic captain who got them to Rio.
The Mediterranean nation’s strength lies in its attacking potential and creativity from deeper areas. In João Moutinho, they have a master craftsman, a precision engineer of his trade, and quick thinking to boot. In general, they have quite a degree of depth in central midfield areas with plenty of others able to come in who can also pick a pass; none quite as effectively as Moutinho though.
Portugal also have among their ranks, mercurial players such as Nani, Varela, and Ronaldo. The former two are world beaters on their day, whereas the Portugese captain is rarely anything but a match winner. Getting the best out of their wide players and creative midfielders is very important for Portugal to score goals this summer, because they do not have quite the same quality in central attacking areas. Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida have been good servants for their country but you have to think that goals will have to come from elsewhere too.
Portugal are relatively solid at the back, but the whiff of an impending mistake is constantly lingering when your defence is sewn together by Pepe, Bruno Alves and Rui Patricio. I imagine that one of them will drop a clanger at some point in the coming weeks, and their team must hope that it comes at a time when the outcome of the match is not in doubt.
Three Key Players:
Pepe: Real Madrid’s no-nonsense style defender has been criticised over the past few years for his frequently rash decision making and incessant fouling. However, recent performances during the charge from Los Blancos towards La Decima have shown us that he does possess the mental resilience to keep a lid on his crazy antics. Pepe seems to have now channelled his aggression into making brave defensive blocks, towering clearing headers, and last-ditch challenges. Is this down to the influence of Carlo Ancelotti one has to wonder? Either way, Pepe has to maintain this current form rather than revert to his old ways to help Portugal’s progression. In a tournament scenario, the threat of suspension is a much more serious danger, and his absence from Portugal’s back four would severely hinder their chance of success.
João Moutinho: One of the game’s chief craftsmen of the football, Moutinho plays matches at his own pace. He has the whole range of passes in his locker, not only able to spray 50 yard cross-field balls, but also having the ability to slip in the team’s strikers for a shot on goal. Monaco’s playmaker is not averse to a long distance strike and has scored plenty of stunners in his time. The World Cup footballs are notoriously temperamental in the air and so taking on speculative efforts may not be the worst idea in the world. Strangely enough for a player of his level of technique, he has the engine and desire to get up and down the pitch. Despite his diminutive stature, Moutinho is not easily pushed off the ball and his presence throughout all aspects of the team will be felt acutely.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Current World Player of the Year and global superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo has had yet another vintage season. He is 29 years of age now, and so you may be forgiven for thinking that he has perhaps peaked, but many of his displays this year have been nothing short of magnificent. Perhaps best of all was the performance he put in to secure his nation’s place in the finals this summer. 3 outstanding finishes in their own right dragged his team from staring defeat in the face to planning their flights to Rio.
Ronaldo’s pace, power, and trickery are widely acknowledged and are seen by many as unrivalled in the world of football. A trait that has been overlooked however is his versatility across the front line. Commonly lining up from the left side, he can cut in to shoot on goal or take his man down the line and deliver a dangerous cross. However, he is not restricted to one position and will often pop up in the hole, on the right, or as a stereotypical number 9. He possesses all the physical traits to play through the middle and at some stage in the World Cup; whether through player absence or tactical choice, we may well see him ploughing a lone furrow through the middle. His threat to the opposition is in no way dampened by this, and as long as he stays fit, Cristiano Ronaldo will be the primary focus for any opponent Portugal face.
The draw for the World Cup placed Portugal in a group with the powerhouses of Germany, in addition to the potential banana skins in the shape of USA and Ghana. In what will likely be one of the games of the early stages of the tournament, I foresee Germany being triumphant over Portugal but only by a narrow margin. Losing the first group stage match in any scenario will always put you onto the back foot, and so realistically Portugal would face a couple of must win games to finish the first round of matches. By hook or by crook, I believe they will just about manage this, with Ronaldo almost certainly being their saviour on at least one occasion.
A second place finish in Group G will result in a knockout match against the winners of Group H. Realistically, this will either be Belgium or Russia. While Belgium probably possess the greater natural ability, they have been absent from big tournaments for some time now. Whereas Russia have impressed a few in recent times with their progression through European Championships. Portugal could therefore face a rematch of their chief qualification contenders, or be handed somewhat of an unknown quantity. I feel either way, Ronaldo will drag them through this Last 16 tie, but the Portugese will then fall at the quarter final stage. It could theoretically be their captain’s last World Cup; almost certainly his last at the top of his game, so he will be desperate not to allow an early exit from Brazil.
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