Portugal coming to the FIFA World Cup in Russia as winners of the 2016 European championships means they cannot call themselves the underdogs anymore. Cristiano Ronaldo’s side can no longer cause an upset, but will most definitely have expectations to meet. The approach, either way will remain the same for Fernando Santos.
In France, Portugal looked to be heading home before a moment of brilliance turned things around – Ronaldo coming to the fore once again as they returned victorious from the jaws of defeat. Their first win in the tournament came in the semi-final against Wales, but crucially they hadn’t lost. One expects Santos to work out a similar strategy with a team that is quite different in personnel from two summers ago.
Ronaldo began his trip to Russia by winning hearts, but his side is unlikely to follow suit on the field as they aren’t unduly worried about the beauty of their game. Santos’ might have more power in attack as compared to his last tournament, but keeping things tight will be top priority.
The 2016 European champions, on paper, don’t have the toughest group, but failing to win it might bring them up against Uruguay and Luis Suarez. Santos’ men will have their task cut out and right from the word go because it is important to get a positive result against Spain.
Portugal’s biggest strength is of course the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo with goal scoring abilities. Year after year, he has produced the goods on the big stage and in national colours he will always be remembered for the brace against Hungary and his passionate display even after being taken off injured in the final.
The most prolific goal scorer in international football currently will be the centre of all Portuguese attacking moves and will bear the burden of scoring the goals in Russia.
While Adrien Silva, Bernardo Silva and Gelson Martins take care of the counter-attacking duties with Ronaldo, the rest of the team will be primed towards holding forte defensively.
Santos has instilled a sense of determination along with discipline in the side. While defensive organisation and keeping that end clean is priority, they’ve conceded only four goals in ten qualifiers, winning has become a habit.
One defeat in 24 games for Santos shows the team knows how to get the job done
While Portugal is over reliant on Ronaldo’s goal scoring abilities, his penchant for doing it all on his own can sometimes back fire. Santos and Ronaldo will have to find a way around other than the on-field tantrums of the superstar forward.
The bigger point of concern for the European champions though will be in defense which is well on the wrong side of 30. A 35-year old Pepe will be partnered by 34-year old Jose Fonte and a 36-year old Bruno Alves. Other than Pepe, the rest have had horrific domestic seasons with West Ham and Rangers, and Cedric Soares will be expected to add weight when in attack.
The age factor will play its role all over the park for the Portuguese side and it is likely to be Santos’ biggest hurdle as the World Cup progresses.
Placed in the same group as Iran, Morocco and 2010 World Champions Spain; Portugal will have their task cut out. Iran and Morocco are no pushovers and Spain is in menacing form. Santos’ will have to bank on his stars to get the momentum going because beyond the group stages opponents are bound to get tougher.
In a best case scenario, Portugal will top the group and end up probably facing France or Argentina in the quarter-final. It is unlikely Ronaldo will be able to take his team to the heights of 2006 or emulate Eusebio’s feat from 1966.
In 2006 in Germany, Portugal’s golden generation led by Luis Figo were desperate to finish victorious; especially since there would not be another World Cup for that lot. Similarly for Cristiano Ronaldo, who is used to winning trophies on a regular basis, this is the last chance at a World Cup.
Often through his career, Ronaldo has tried to do it all by himself and when it hasn’t gone to script he has been more broody and moody. Portugal will have to be wary, because the effect can be devastating on players who are physically running out of time and mentally coming off forgettable domestic seasons mostly.
On the flipside, assuming all the plans fall in place for Santos and Portugal there can also, without a doubt, be no place for complacency. Though reaching those heights would mean Ronaldo and Portugal would likely have over-achieved in Russia.
Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes, Beto, Rui Patricio.
Defenders: Bruno Alves, Cedric Soares, Jose Fonte, Mario Rui, Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Ricardo Pereira, Ruben Dias.
Midfielders: Adrien Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Mario, Joao Moutinho, Manuel Fernandes, William Carvalho, Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva.
Strikers: Cristiano Ronaldo, Gelson Martins, Goncalo Guedes, Ricardo Quaresma.