12913_isi_ronaldo_intbb081013134 Bill Barrett/isiphotos.com
World Cup 2014

Group G Preview: Loaded Portugal Poses Challenges

FIFA ranks Portugal as the fifth-best team in the world, but the same squad was 14th as recently as October. Is it a powerhouse side or an over-ranked, vulnerable opponent? Noah Davis reports.

BY Noah Davis Posted
December 09, 2013
2:59 PM
Editor's Note: American Soccer Now will be all over Group G and the entire World Cup experience from this day forward. We also have early looks at Ghana and Germany ready for you.

ESSENTIALS

If FIFA used the November 2013 rankings, Portugal, fifth at the time, would have earned a seed. But the squad was just 14th in October after a string of disappointing results, and it missed out on landing in the coveted pot A. As a result, A Selecção finds itself in the group with the highest average ranking. But all is not lost: Portugal has one of the best players in the world in Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, and he has plenty of talent around him including club teammates Pepe and Fábio Coentrão, Manchester United's Nani, and Monaco's João Moutinho.

Still, Brazil might represent the last, best chance for this generation to make its mark in world soccer. It hasn't been a bad run—the team finished fourth at the most recent European championship—but it hasn't won any medals, either. While that's unlikely to happen in 2014, Portugal could get hot, Ronaldo could destroy a few nets (and more than a few bottles of hair product), and the squad could make a deep run. (You're saying there's a chance...) More than likely, however, Portugal will battle with the United States (6pm, June 22; ESPN) and Ghana for second place in Group G, especially if it loses to Germany in the first match.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Portugal, drawn into what seemed an easy European qualification group, struggled and ultimately finished second to Russia. The team lost in Moscow, tied Northern Ireland at home in Porto, and drew both legs with Israel—not exactly a dominant showing. In the playoff against Sweden, Cristiano Ronaldo (four goals) outdid counterpart Zlatan Ibrahimovic (two) and A Selecção was through. Still, the road to Brazil was more difficult than it should have been.

THE COACH

Paulo Bento took over the team after a poor start to the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign doomed Carlos Queiroz. The 44-year-old Lisbon-born former defensive midfielder, who earned 35 caps for his native country between 1992 and 2002–he came on in the 69th minute of the 3-2 loss to the U.S.–led Portugal to a semifinal appearance in the tournament and through its successful albeit rocky World Cup qualifying campaign. Before taking the top spot with his nation, Bento helmed Sporting Clube de Portugal for four years, where he won a number of trophies and earned the nickname "Papa-Taças" ("Cup Eater"). As a player, Bento was known as a fiery competitor who occasionally lost his head; UEFA suspended him for five months for bad behavior after a semifinal defeat to Spain at the 2000 Euro.

KEY PLAYERS

  • A Selecção live and die with one man: Cristiano Ronaldo. But its best player has struggled to show up on the biggest stages. He scored a single goal in the 2006 tournament–a penalty against Iran–and his only tally during the 2010 World Cup came in a 7-0 pasting of North Korea. But perhaps the four goals Ronaldo put in over the two-leg playoff against Sweden signal that the 28-year-old is learning to step up. He has never played against the United States, not even in a friendly.

  • Portugal, however, is not a one-man attack. Nani can be trouble on the wing with blinding pace and more than proficient stepovers. The speedster has evolved into a classic winger, attacking from both flanks. He doesn't score that many goals—just 14 in 72 matches with Portugal—but he's a wonderful distributor with the vision to see the pass and the skill to complete it.

  • AS Monaco's Joao Moutinho is a stalwart in central midfield, capable of going forward or defending. He made the best 23 at Euro 2008 and played every minute during the 2012 event. His partner, the exquisitely tattooed Raul Meireles, adds some bite to the midfield but also has a knack for making a key pass here and there. He can lose his head, however, and the U.S. would be smart to try to exploit his occasional mental lapses.

  • Elsewhere, Bruno Alves holds down the middle of the backline and has a knack for scoring goals in big situations, as he finished with four in qualification. At 32, he no longer possesses the speed he once did, but he makes up for the loss of a half step with hard-won understanding and excellent vision. He and fellow center back Pepe form a formidable duo who aren't afraid to throw their size -—and their elbows—around. Even a player like Jozy Altidore might be an underdog in the battle of physicality.

    TACTICS

    Portugal prefers playing a 4-3-3 but the team's attack is pretty simple: Get the ball to Ronaldo and let him work his magic. He's one of the fastest players in the world, and the United States central defenders–never known for their speed–will need to be wary. Ronaldo is also far too physically strong for a slight fullback like DaMarcus Beasley to handle. Six-foot-tall Fabian Johnson, or perhaps even the sturdy Eric Lichaj might provide better options against the Well-Coiffed One.

    WORLD CUP HISTORY

    Brazil is the fourth straight World Cup Portugal has reached, and the country has found mixed success. It failed to get out of its group in 2002, but fours later it won three group games, a round of 16 match against the Netherlands, and a penalty shootout with England before failing to France in the semifinals and Germany in the third-place match. In South Africa, a David Villa goal sent Portugal home from the 2010 World Cup after the Round of 16. The country's best-ever finish came in 1966 when the team finished third after losing to England in the semifinals.

    THEY SAID IT

    "It is what it is. It's a tough group, with four good teams that have reasons to believe they all can make it to the next round. Most people probably think Germany are the best team. It's obvious they could win the whole thing. Our first aim is to get to the knockout stage, and then we'll take it from there.... I can't forget that we lost our first match of the 2002 World Cup against the USA. It was a shock to us, that 3-2." —Bento

    "I was sleeping during the World Cup draw." Ronaldo

    "Portugal had a little bit of trouble coming out of qualifying in Europe but that doesn’t say much because there are so many good teams in Europe. For me, like I said, Ronaldo is the best player in the world right now. He has shown, even when you look at the two games with Sweden, that he has the ability to, in a way unlike any other player in the world, put his team on his shoulders and will them and carry them. We have, for sure, a lot of respect for their team and we know it will be really difficult." —Michael Bradley

    FORECAST

    The United States likely needs a point against Portugal if it hopes to advance, and that's an achievable goal although certainly not an easy task. A Selecção will dominate possession, but this isn't the Portugal team of a few years ago. Contain Cristiano and good things can happen.

    What did you think when you saw Portugal on the United States' World Cup To Do List? Daunted? Confident? Share your thoughts below.
  • Post a comment

    AmericanSoccerNow.