SCOTT PETERSON - Tuesday, December 17, 2013
CR7 needs 11
This is part two of three, examining America's Group G opponents.
Up next: Portugal.
Nickname: A Seleção, Os Navegadores
World Rank - 5th
Record v USA 2-2-1; 0-1-0 in the World Cup
Best Finish - 3rd (1966)
Ranging from perennial disappointments to high-profile wild card, it is an exercise in futility to predict just how Portugal will perform on the big stage. The Portuguese are truly a paradox. Bursting with quality all over the pitch, they should be a constant favorite to lift the hardware, but somehow manage to be weaker than the sums of its parts.
Perhaps that's being harsh. But when they are tipped to make some noise, as was the golden generation of Portuguese soccer with the likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Pauleta in the late 90s and early 00s, they've exited early. An unthinkable loss to the US in 2002 kicked off their less-than-stellar run, while defeat at the hands of the most underwhelming champion in history in the 2004 Euro final to Greece was self-implosion at its horrific apex.
Conversely, when they're overlooked, as they were in their 1966 World Cup debut, they've come up huge (finishing third in that tournament, which still rates as their best finish to-date). Even the 2012 Euro squad, which will largely resemble this one, was not a popular pick to progress from its group of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. However, not only did it progress, but were unfortunate not to beat Spain in a shootout in the semis.
After years of underachieving and wasted talent and despite a qualifying campaign with draws to both Israel and Northern Ireland, this is a team that is clearly trending upwards.
For a second-consecutive cycle, Portugal qualified for the finals the hard way via the playoffs, and did so riding their ace: the man, the myth, the acronym: CR7, aka Cristiano Ronaldo.
In CR7 the Portuguese have the most audacious and obvious headliner to grace the big stage since the David Lee Roth led Van Halen.
A lightning rod for adulation, praise, vitriol and disgust, Ronaldo's recent play for both club and country, however, leaves little room for a second opinion.
Superlatives have been exhausted when describing his combination of athleticism, scoring, drive and flair. While Ronaldo does make it all look easy, do not let his panache and flamboyance fool you; he is a fierce competitor, who ceased taking games off and puts in the work to back up his love-it or hate-it style.
Ronaldo is their captain, but for Portugal to make a splash and a run at the title he cannot steer the ship through a treacherous group, and tournament, alone.
The Portuguese under head coach Paulo Bento typically line up in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-1-2-1, which provides a compact midfield to snuff out opposing attacks and distribute the ball wide to Ronaldo or centrally to Joao Moutinho.
The mercurial Nani is more flash than substance, possessing more than enough pace and dribbling ability to easily blow past defenses and disappoint with his finishing.
When goals do decide to come, they typically come in bunches - although the winger has been searching for his form for the better part of two years. Despite rarely putting it all together, Nani is equipped with a skillset that most can only dream of.
The defensive midfield is workmanlike, if not excellent with Dynamo Kiev's Miguel Veloso, Fenerbahce's Raul Meireles or Braga's Custodio protecting the backline, should the Portuguese attack break down.
Veloso could offer more going forward, but is oftentimes either caught in two minds or too timid to assert himself in attack, while Meireles is tenacious in defense and has a thunderous long-range shot to boot.
Custodio, or possibly Madrid's Pepe, tends to lie deeper than Veloso or Meireles to clean up and shut down any attacks that seep through using any means necessary.
The other lynchpin in the Portuguese midfield is Joao Moutinho. The Monaco man does not find the back of the net as often as other playmakers, but the diminutive Moutinho is the creative hub for the Portuguese attack, simultaneously doing his fair share to win the ball back.
The defense is formidable in the middle. Pepe and Galatasaray's Bruno Alves comprise a tough-as-nails backline that excels in will, desire and aerial prowess. Pepe is more athletic, while Alves is a dangerous threat on set pieces.
In the event that one of the duo should miss out due to injury or, more likely, suspension, Zenit St. Petersburg's Luis Neto or Valencia's Ricardo Costa provide decent alternatives for Bento's side.
The quality on the outside is a bit more refined although depth is a concern should either Valencia's Joao Pereira or Madrid's Fabio Coentrão be forced out.
Both fancy forays into the attacking third: Coentrão likes cutting inside and picking out teammates from a central position, while Pereira tends to make overlapping runs down the wing to provide dangerous service to Ronaldo and co.
Between the sticks is Rui Patricio. The netminder played every minute in qualifying and is fantastic on the line, while solid in the air. The Sporting Lisbon man is a big-game keeper, who can keep his team in games by ripping off an array of world class saves as he did versus Spain in the Euro 2012 semifinal.
His glaring weakness is his distribution and ball control. He shanks clearances with alarming regularity and is good for a blunder here and there if pressured with the ball at his feet as he did versus Israel in qualifying.
However, the real problem child in the Portuguese 11 is the strikers.
With Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida as Bento's first choice options, there is nothing exceptional up front for Portugal. Postiga did tally four times for Portugal, good for second most behind Ronaldo; however, the Valencia forward is as skilled as Almeida of turning the most promising-looking attack into disappointment.
Portugal could do a better job with their spacing and not leave the marksmen on an island to fend for themselves. Nevertheless, there is no reason for the Portuguese faithful to forget Pauleta anytime soon.
Despite the glaring dearth of talent in their strike force, Portugal is stacked. Even beyond the other-worldly talents of Mr. Ronaldo. On paper, only the most die-hard US or Ghana fans could see Portugal going home before the knockout stages. In all actuality the overall talent on the Portuguese roster justifies optimism and expectation, with the only acceptable result being a victorious CR7 hoisting the trophy in the Maracana on July 13th.
Anything less would be a further example of Portuguese profligacy.