Written by Andre Henrique
Flashback two years ago and unfold an incredible underdog story of a nation who against all odds captured their first major international tournament. Portugal miraculously triumphed in France but can they replicate their 2016 success in Russia?
Portugal didn’t win a game in a group consisting of Iceland, Austria and Hungary, luckily going through as the best third placed team. They won only one game in 90 minutes in their semi-final victory against Wales.
But Portugal had somehow worked a way into the final to face the hosts France. Not an easy task. Especially when Cristiano Ronaldo, the nation’s treasure, was forced off injured after 25 minutes. But they did it. Portugal survived 90 minutes of French bombardment and eventually won it in extra-time with Eder’s 25-yard strike.
Now in Russia, Portugal find themselves in a tricky Group B with Morocco, Iran and 2010 World Cup winners Spain.
The European champions face Spain first and despite their recent tournament torment, the Spaniards hold fierce power. Spain’s ageing team which saw them dumped out at the group stage in 2014 has been revamped. Spain now have arguably the best goalkeeper in the world in David De Gea. La Roja’s midfield has been injected with young, exciting world-class talent like Isco and Marco Asensio. Not forgetting their ever-present core and World Cup winners, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta among others. Portugal will need a five-star performance in their opening game to overcome favourites Spain.
Morocco and Iran are two expected victories but they will not be as straight-forward as they look. Morocco will be at the World Cup finals for the first time since France 1998 but the African nation have dangerous players which could cause Portugal problems. Southampton winger, Sofiane Boufal has endured a torrid season with the Saints but the Moroccan can be incredibly effective with his pace and dribbling. Their spearhead and captain is Medhi Benatia. The Juventus centre-back has been out of favour this season but his experience will be important for Morocco when they face Portugal on matchday two.
Iran qualified for the fifth time in their history but their only win in the tournament remains a 2-1 victory over the United States at France 98. But with Portuguese born manager, Carlos Queiroz, they have an experienced man who has enjoyed spells with Manchester United, Real Madrid and two terms as Portugal boss. Portugal face Iran in the final round of group matches.
Looking away from Portugal’s group opponents, the ‘Selecao’ have talent of their own. None more so than Cristiano Ronaldo. The current best player in the world can carry Portugal all the way. The 33-year-old has once again had a record-breaking season and there is no doubt the Portuguese superstar will be the man to watch in Russia.
Alongside Ronaldo, Portugal have talented firepower going forward. Andre Silva, who plays his football in Italy for AC Milan, scored in all but one qualifying game leading up to the World Cup. Bernardo Silva has occasionally featured in Manchester City’s rampant season but when the winger has played he has been packed with incredible finesse and is technically very sound.
Portugal’s midfield has power and creativity. Fernando Santos, Portugal manager, has at his disposal defensive powerhouses with Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho who have attracted big English clubs. Going forward Santos will look at players like Joao Mario who joined West Ham in January and has been effective with his technical brilliance. Nani will also have an important part to play again, the experienced midfielder will look to pick up the ball and run at defenders. If picked, Wolves star Ruben Neves, could play a pivotal role for Portugal. His control in midfield has meant Wolves’ centre has been compact and strong. Neves can control possession well but can also dig deep when needed defensively.
The problem for Portugal comes at centre-back. Around the centre-backs Portugal have a fierce engine room. Full-backs like Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro are non-stop down the flanks and can produce going forward but are also defensively strong. But at centre-back Portugal will see a bunch of aged defenders that are slowly drifting past their best. Pepe and Jose Fonte were the pairing in the 2016 final and were able to shut out a range of French talent which looked to pierce the Portuguese defence. Pepe and Fonte are now 35 and 34 respectively and play their football away from the top leagues. Pepe plays for Besiktas in Turkey and Fonte plays his football in China and both men may struggle with the pace of playing on the biggest stage of them all, the World Cup.
Bruno Alves and Rolando have also featured for Portugal recently but are past their peak and Portugal may have to turn to Benfica’s centre-back Ruben Dias. Dias is 20 and has been impressive for the Portuguese champions this season. The youngster may have a crucial part to play for Portugal in Russia but if Portugal can overcome their centre-back woes, the ‘Selecao’ have an all-round solid squad capable of raising a few eyebrows once again.
Portugal have talent across the pitch and with Ronaldo, the talisman, Portugal have hope. It will be difficult but the underdogs conquered France, is Russia next?
How will Portugal get on in Russia? Let us know in the comments below!