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May 21, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Portugal

With big expectations weighing on his shoulders, can Cristiano Ronaldo lead Portugal out of a treacherous Group G?

Group G | Germany | Ghana | United States


Team DNA

You know what you're going to get with manager Paulo Bento. Sincere and straightforward to a fault, what he lacks in tactical cuteness he makes up for in clarity. In many ways, he's exactly what you want from an international boss. He keeps it simple, using players in their club positions rather than trying to shoehorn in the best 11 any which way he can.

So, once again, Portugal will adopt the 4-3-3 that has been Bento's trademark ever since he took the reins from Carlos Queiroz back in 2010. Portugal have sometimes struggled to reproduce the dynamism of that honeymoon period (they hit 25 goals in Bento's first 10 games in charge), but there is a greater fluidity to their game than under Queiroz's ultradefensive approach.

That old style stifled Cristiano Ronaldo; now, the team is built to serve their star man and captain. Fabio Coentrao dovetails well with his club teammate on the left-hand side, while Helder Postiga is also a good foil for Ronaldo at centre-forward.

Bento has also been working on a Plan B in recent months, experimenting with 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formations - with Ronaldo as a central striker - in friendlies.

Starting scenarios

History

After a sparse run that saw them qualify for just two World Cups between the inaugural edition in 1930 and 1998, Portugal are set to make their fourth straight appearance. Their best finish was third overall in 1966, edging the Soviet Union 2-1 in London. A 1-0 loss to rivals Spain in the round of 16 four years ago definitely left a bitter taste for Portugal (more on that below).

How they reached Brazil

The hard way, as usual. This was the third straight tournament where Portugal qualified via the playoffs. A total of six dropped points against Israel and Northern Ireland ended any chances Bento's side had of automatic qualification. It could have been worse without Ronaldo's hat trick in Belfast to turn around a deficit against Northern Ireland, or Coentrao's stoppage-time equaliser in Tel Aviv.

Ronaldo came to the rescue again in the playoff against Sweden, scoring the winner in the home leg before dragging Portugal out of the mire in Stockholm with another (quite spectacular) hat trick.

Ultimately, it was a much more uncomfortable, bumpy route to Brazil than would have been desired. But Portugal have often shown that qualification performances bear no relation to their ability to compete in the actual World Cup.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Spain. There has always been the sense that Portugal have lived in the footballing shadow of their Iberian neighbour, and victory over the big boys is always sweet. The 1-0 victory against Spain in the final group match of the 2004 Euros, when Nuno Gomes' goal eliminated Inaki Saez & Co. en route to an eventual final, was wildly celebrated all over Portugal. It was their first competitive win against Spain.

Since then, even more nuance has been added to the rivalry. The 4-0 win against Spain in a November 2010 friendly is still talked about. The penalty shootout loss against La Roja in the 2012 Euros semifinal was, however, especially tough to take after Bento's team matched Spain every step of the way.

Getting past Vicente del Bosque's side would also mean that Portugal have managed a fantastic tournament - and have a chance of winning the whole thing. The earliest they could meet is in the semifinals; if both finished in equivalent positions in their respective groups (Portugal in Group G, Spain in Group B), then they could meet only in the final. Either way, it would be an occasion.

Most important player

It is no secret that Portugal's challenge in Brazil will live or die by Ronaldo's fortunes. What the captain really needs is suitable support: a couple of quality players (Portugal have plenty) who can step up to play at their best and give him the platform to shine.

During Portugal's run to the semifinals of the 2012 Euros, those players were Bruno Alves, who put a difficult run of club form to one side to enjoy a stellar tournament, and midfielder Joao Moutinho. Both will again be important, but a player who wouldn't even have been mentioned as a possible squad inclusion six months ago could be the key.

Another Sporting Academy product (there are eight in the squad) could emerge as a central figure. At 22, William Carvalho has emerged as a pivotal player for his club side in the past campaign, and the early signs are he could do the same at the international level. Having returned from an extended loan spell at Cercle Brugge, he slotted seamlessly into a defensive midfield position for Sporting, helping them return to the Champions League after a five-year absence. Bento's trust in Carvalho is such that he was given his senior debut as a substitute in the crucial playoff second leg in Sweden shortly after Portugal trailed 2-1. He looked like the calmest man in Stockholm; his nerves of steel should serve Portugal well in Brazil.

Definition of success

For a country of 10 million people, Portugal have an especially demanding public. That is bred by a couple of factors. First, there were Benfica's glory days of the 1960s, powered by Eusebio and Mario Coluna, which translated to the national team's success in reaching the 1966 World Cup semifinals. With both greats passing away this year, there will be a desire to pay tribute to them by doing well in Brazil.

Next, there is the success of the Luiz Felipe Scolari era. After Portugal reached the 2004 Euros final and the 2006 World Cup semifinals, it was a source of great frustration to the now-Brazil manager that the extent of his achievements was not fully appreciated.

Video: Portugal odds in World Cup (Australia only)

Instead, the strong spell of results has created a sense of expectation that is tough to match. The loss to Spain in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup was a huge disappointment. Given that the draw offers a possible meeting against Belgium at the same stage and then (maybe) a clash with Argentina in the quarterfinals, most in the country will want to see Portugal reach the quarterfinals, at least.

How far will Portugal go?

It depends entirely on Ronaldo. The semifinals are within reach if he is on fire, but Lionel Messi's Argentina squad might be too steep a hurdle in the quarterfinals.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Steve McManaman

Oh, Portugal. This is a wonderfully talented team, but as always, they just seem to mess it up, don't they? They are packed with world-class players, yet they play like an average team on the world stage.

This offence is so reliant on Ronaldo's magic that he actually has two jobs: Work to create chances and win balls in the midfield, but also poach goals as a forward. Moutinho, Nani, Raul Meireles - one of them has to get out of Ronaldo's shadow, score some goals and say, "Look, it's up to us now."

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