Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Manager: Fernando Santos
FIFA rank: 4
How they qualified: Winners of European Group B ahead of Switzerland
Preferred system: 4-4-2
Star player: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
One to watch: Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
“Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and France are the favourites to win the World Cup,” says the Portugal coach, Fernando Santos, before adding: “Then we have other candidates, who want to get as far as possible, and win the tournament if possible, and Portugal are in this second group.” Santos is cautious, despite winning Euro 2016 but he is looking forward to the World Cup with optimism and does so with good reason: Portugal seem stronger now than a year and a half ago, having added creativity to the defensive organisation that underpinned the 2016 title. Bernardo Silva and André Silva have been important factors in this attacking upgrade and in general supplied the team more depth. The one area which is perhaps weaker is the defence, where it has been hard to find replacements for Pepe (who will be 35 next summer), José Fonte (34) and Bruno Alves (36).
After losing the opening game of UEFA World Cup Qualification Group B against Switzerland in Basel, Portugal won all their remaining matches to top the group and qualify automatically for Russia. After that initial setback, which Ronaldo missed through injury, Portugal scored 32 goals and conceded only two in the next nine games. Ronaldo and Andre Silva struck up a superb partnership, scoring 24 goals between them.
Santos has instilled an iron will to win and an enormous unity of purpose since taking over in September 2014, with the team winning 20 and losing only one of 24 competitive matches under the veteran coach. The Selecao regularly made deep runs into major tournaments in recent history, five semifinals or better in nine tournaments this century but were always seen as mentally brittle at crunch time. Not anymore.
Portugal’s players have fully bought into the mantra of first and foremost making themselves difficult to beat, with the Euro 2016 triumph strengthening their belief in this approach and fortifying the newfound winning mentality. The fierce competition for places among a talented generation has not dented an impressive togetherness within the squad.
A reliance on veteran players could prove their undoing. Portugal have lost only two competitive matches since the 2014 World Cup, and both times Ronaldo was missing through injury. If the opposition manage to nullify him, the Selecao will struggle for goals.
At the heart of defence, 35-year-old Pepe is arguably at least as important for Portugal’s chances of going far, the form and fitness of the centre-back crucial, especially as he will likely be partnered by either Bruno Alves (36) or Jose Fonte (34), both of whose better days are behind them. As mentioned above, Portugal’s traditional free-wheeling and flamboyant style of play has been replaced by a more defense-minded approach, meaning creativity is in short supply. Ricardo Quaresma (34), despite being mainly used off the bench by Santos, has supplied more than double the number of assists by any other Portugal player in the past four years, and is likely to be key to unlocking the opposition.
Look no further than Portugal’s greatest ever player, Cristiano Ronaldo. After a poor start to 2017-18, critics were lining up to write the obituaries on his extraordinary career. But since the turn of the year, the Real Madrid superstar has been unstoppable. He has obliterated the records for Portugal’s national team (148 caps, 81 goals and counting) but remains as hungry as ever to further burnish his legacy. If the Selecao are to follow up their debut tournament victory in France two years ago with something special at this World Cup, Ronaldo will be at the heart of it. The great man just knows how to win, with countless La Liga, Champions League and Euro Trophies in hi possesion over the past few years.
The two times Portugal qualified for a World Cup in Europe, they reached the semifinal (England 1966 and Germany 2006), but matching that achievement appears a long shot. An over-reliance on Ronaldo and Pepe, along with the fact that too many key players have had disastrous seasons Andre Silva, Raphael Guerreiro, Adrien Silva, Joao Mario, has seen Portugal regress since winning the European Championship two years ago.
They should get out of the group, and once there, a favourable match-up in the round of 16 makes a quarterfinal appearance doable, though the run will end there against France or Argentina.