Destiny awaits Cristiano Ronaldo
With the match against Germany almost upon us, the mood in the Portugal camp is upbeat and positive. Fitness doubts are beginning to subside, and the only questions now surround exactly who will start for Portugal in Salvador's Arena Fonte Nova.
One man who is not only a certain bet to start for any national team game but also on the cusp of breaking yet more records is Cristiano Ronaldo.
- 50-50: Germany vs. Portugal
Looking lean and fit, the Real Madrid star will become the first Portuguese player to start 11 World Cup finals games, will play his 25th match in final competitions of World Cups and Euros (another Portuguese record) and, if he manages to find the net against Germany, will become the first Portuguese player to score in three consecutive World Cup final stages. And he will reach 50 goals for the national team -- also a record.
While it might be difficult to imagine Portugal going far without him, a fully fit Cristiano Ronaldo is a fundamental starting point for Paulo Bento's side.
With the Madeiran firing on all cylinders, the sky could be the limit. If recent injuries flare up again, Portugal's chances will quickly be reduced. As he stated in Portugal's press conference, he has rarely played without some degree of pain, so those worrying about his current plight can sleep a little easier.
If it is unthinkable that Portugal would start without their talisman, the rest of the side also more or less picks itself when fit, and Bento's choice of starters leaves only two doubts: which of William Carvalho and Miguel Veloso will slot in to Bento's fabled three man midfield, and who will start upfront?
The clues suggest Hugo Almeida will start in the centre-forward position. Two goals in his last run out against Ireland and five years of Bundesliga experience in a successful spell at Werder Bremen mean Almeida looks the most likely.
In Portugal's warm-up games, Bento tried a variety of options in attack: Braga's Eder and Helder Postiga of Lazio against Greece, Eder alone against Mexico and then Almeida solo against the Republic of Ireland.
Much has been made of the conservative tones evident in most of Bento's strategizing. He has revealed a lighter side to team structure during the past month, but a World Cup opener against Germany is not likely to be considered an apt moment to start shedding the shackles of nearly 10 years of steady but unspectacular coaching.
Whether the likes of Eder and Carvalho will get their chances later remains to be seen, but it is more than probable that the ex-Sporting coach will opt for Almeida up front and Miguel Veloso in midfield, which means those looking forward to catching a glimpse of the mighty oak Carvalho might have to wait a little longer.
With Pepe also ready for action alongside Bruno Alves at the heart of the defence and Nani displaying form on both wings (which will raise eyebrows at Manchester United), the side looks likely to be the tried and trusted 4-3-3 of Rui Patricio; Joao Pereira, Alves, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao; Joao Moutinho, Veloso and Raul Meireles; Nani, Ronaldo and Almeida.
This is a side built on reliability and solidity, shot through with practical strengths while relying on Ronaldo and Nani to produce the sparks that ignite fruitful forward movement.
Portugal will have identified the weak areas in the German setup, namely a certain stiffness at the back, where Per Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng make a frighteningly unsteady right half to the back four and a possible weakness in dealing with swift changes to attack along the flanks when Germany have lost possession high up the field.
Again, the pace and inventiveness of Nani and Ronaldo will be key to unlocking the door if these two possible weak areas can be tickled during the match.
The midfield battle, in which the Germans might at first appear to have numerical advantage, will be key to taking command of the game. How both defences cope with the lightning-fast raids of two well-stocked attacks will also be decisive in how far the advantage tips one way or another, but if it all comes down to scoring more goals than your opponent at the end of 90 minutes (and football usually does), then only a wafer-thin line separates the goal-scoring talent of Thomas Muller on the one side and Ronaldo on the other.
Muller might have been the 2010 World Cup top scorer, but many in Portugal believe 2014 can be the year of Ronaldo. With the latter laughing off a late arrival at the press conference (only an hour) and talking of destiny once it started, it might just be that fate is waiting for him.