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Scolari aims to make history

Somewhat surprisingly, Portugal's appearance at the World Cup in Germany will mark only their fourth involvement in the finals and only the second time they have contested consecutive tournaments.

Portugal's debut came in England back in 1966 where, inspired by competition top-scorer Eusebio, they finished third. It would be another 20 years until Seleção were back in the finals, though finishing bottom of their group at Mexico '86 marked a disappointing return.

Sixteen years on in 2002 there was more disappointment when, despite boasting a side including the talents of Joao Pinto, Luis Figo and Rui Costa, Portugal were unable to navigate their way out a group featuring the USA, South Korea and Poland.

With six goals the Portuguese proved that they were perfectly capable of scoring on the biggest stage, but conceding four against opposition considered, on paper at least, to be inferior Portugal were shown to be lacking the necessary steel to be serious contenders at the top level.

Acutely aware that as hosts of the 2004 European Championships a poor showing would be a national embarrassment the Portuguese authorities acted swiftly to remove the coach - two weeks after their elimination Antonio Oliveira was gone.

However, it took the authorities until November to appoint Oliveira's successor; the charismatic and occasionally belligerent Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Winning the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, a feat which gave the South American's a record fifth world title, ensured that Scolari was one of the most sought after coaches in world football; a fact he was acutely aware of.

Working with a crop of talented players, and benefiting from being hosts of the tournament, Scolari guided Portugal to the final of Euro 2004 only to be beaten by Greece, the tournament's surprise package.

Despite defeat Scolari remained at the helm to guide the Portuguese through the qualification process for Germany; a campaign of some distinction.

Of their 12 qualifying games Portugal won nine along the way conceding just five goals and scoring an impressive 35, more than any other European country. The result was that Scolari's men comfortably topped their qualifying group with a seven-point cushion between them and their nearest rivals Slovakia.

Their most impressive performance of the campaign was undoubtedly the 7-1 demolition of Russia in Lisbon, while also worthy of note was a 4-0 victory over Estonia, and two thumping victories over lowly Luxemburg: a 5-0 win away from home and 6-0 home triumph.

With an impressive 11 goals during qualifying Portugal's Paris St Germain striker Pauleta topped the European qualifying zone's goal-scoring list and in doing so became his country's all-time leading scorer over-taking Eusebio's 41 goal haul.

However, there were the occasional glitches during qualification, such as a 2-2 draw away to Liechtenstein which smacked of an over-confident team taking their opponents for an easy touch.

In Germany Portugal will find themselves in Group D alongside Mexico, Iran and Angola.

Scolari's squad will undoubtedly expect to make it through to the second round, with their final group game against Mexico in Gelsenkirchen on June 21st likely to be the match to decide which of the two qualifies top of the group.

Yet it is possible to argue that there is little to choose between finishing top or second of Group D with the winner and runners-up respectively set to face the second-placed and top team from Group C, which appears most likely to be either Argentina or the Netherlands, both very strong teams.

The Portuguese though have a squad capable of competing with the very best sides taking part at the World Cup, with a defence containing Chelsea's Ricardo Carvalho, a midfield boasting Barcelona star Deco and an attacking line including the record-breaking Pauleta.

In Germany the man most likely to strike fear into the hearts of Portugal's opposition will be Manchester United's exceptionally talented winger Cristiano Ronaldo.

When he first joined United Ronaldo divided opinion, some interpreted his dazzling array of tricks and step-overs as unnecessarily showy and criticised his love of the ball at his feet regarding him as a selfish player.

While a natural leader and talismanic figure, Figo is slowing and is far from the force he once was.
However, under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson Ronaldo has developed his game greatly - crucially though without losing the individualistic flair that entertains so many fans and baffles so many defenders.

Physically Ronaldo has added strength and bulk to the slight frame which was the root cause of his being barged and buffeted off the ball, though some critics still frown at the 21-year-old's tendency to go down under a challenge.

Technically the winger now has wider appreciation of play, and while still a gifted and frequent dribbler Ronaldo is far more likely to spread play rather than run into corners. His added strength has also allowed him to develop his game to include some dangerous long-range shooting and freekick-taking.

Despite a seemingly ready-made replacement, the man whose mantle many expected Ronlado to take has reversed his July 2004 decision to retire from international football: Luis Figo, one of the few remaining members of Portugal's feted 'Golden Generation', is back for one last hoorah and has even retained the captain's armband.

It remains to be seen quite what impact the Inter Milan man can have on the tournament and the Portugal side. While a natural leader and talismanic figure, Figo is slowing and is far from the force he once was.

In the Euro 2004 quarter-final against England Scolari cemented his reputation as manager unafraid to take bold decisions when he subbed an ineffectual Figo. It could have been an ignominious end for a great talent. In Germany history could quite easily repeat itself and this time there will be no way back for Figo.

Whether or not the Portuguese reprise their semi-final showing of Euro 2004 is difficult question to answer.

Despite an impressive squad boasting several highly-talented individuals there will be teams at the World Cup who will not fear Portugal and indeed would fancy their chances against them over 90minutes.

However, one should not underestimate Scolari and his determination to succeed both for his team and himself.

A manager of supreme confidence and ambition, Scolari stands on the cusp of achieving a unique record - becoming the first manager to win the World Cup in consecutive tournaments with two different countries.

What better to motivate oneself and one's team?