As the World Cup edges closer, we continue our run down of mini-previews to gear up for the tournament.
After rounding off Group A with Uruguay on Tuesday, we delve into Group B and start with European champions Portugal.
Two years ago, Eder’s goal in extra time saw Portugal lift the European Championship for the first time in their history. They’ll look to add a World Cup to the trophy cabinet this summer and follow in the footsteps of France and rivals Spain in holding both international trophies at the same time.
They have been drawn in a tough group, however, as they face Spain on the opening Friday of the tournament before coming up against Morocco and Iran. On the face of it, Portugal should progress, but they can’t merely expect to turn up against the latter pair and feel they have to do the bare minimum to progress to the knockout stages.
Portugal have progressed beyond the group stage on just three occasions in their World Cup history, with a third-placed finish in 1966 their crowning achievement on the grand stage of international football. They’ll hope to go at least one better in Russia with Cristiano Ronaldo understandably the star man for Fernando Santos’ XI and he’ll have the hopes of the nation resting on his shoulders this summer.
The Real Madrid star could well come into the World Cup with another Champions League winners’ medal round his neck and when it comes to a big man for the big occasion, there are few better than the 33-year-old. He’s scored more goals (15) than any other player in Europe’s elite club competition this term, while 25 league goals is also a superb return considering his indifferent start to the campaign.
Given Portugal’s lack of quality forward options, Ronaldo is expected to spearhead the Portugal offensive this summer in Santos’ favoured 4-3-3 setup. However, while he has looked a little out of his depth as the lone forward in the past, he’s developed his game to maximise his goalscoring talent over the years and it could well be that this proves to be his most prolific international tournament to date.
He’ll need someone to supply the ammunition in Russia and after a notable Championship campaign, Wolves star Ruben Neves was rightly called into Santos’ 35-man provisional squad this week. One would expect the midfielder to nail down a spot in the final squad ahead of the World Cup and perhaps even a place in the starting XI.
The 21-year-old scored six and assisted one in England’s second tier this term as Wolves romped to the title with Neves the heartbeat. He was third for passes per game (63.8) in the Championship this season, while 8.6 accurate long balls per match was more than any other outfield player. An ability to effortlessly spread the ball across the park will benefit the full-backs and wingers and given Santos’ wide options, he’ll need Neves to be at his accurate best in order for Portugal to navigate Group B.
Portugal have a strong immediate XI, of that there is no doubt, even if the centre-backs can be improved upon, and if they can hit the ground running against Spain, then there is no telling how far they can progress this summer. Much of that depends on Ronaldo’s performances, though. He won the Silver Boot at Euro 2016; going one better will help Portugal to a World Cup triumph in Russia.