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World Cup 2014 Previews Group G: Portugal

SOCCER: World Cup-Portugal vs Spain

Team: Portugal
Group: G
Schedule: June 16 vs. Germany; June 21 vs. United States; June 26 vs. Ghana
World Cup Record: 12-8-3 (Third place 1966)
Qualifying Form: For the second straight World Cup, Portugal finished a point behind Russia in its group but qualified through the UEFA playoffs with Ronaldo & Co. eliminating Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden over the two-leg playoff. Ronaldo finished with a hat trick in the second leg.

Manager: Paul Bento, a 44-year-0ld in charge since 2010. Under Bento Portugal lost to Spain at the Euro 2012 semifinals in penalty kicks — arguably the closest Spain has come to losing at the last three major tournaments.

Player to Watch (Not Named Ronaldo): William Carvalho. The Angolan-born 22-year-old has rapidly developed into midfield tank at Sporting CP, Ronaldo’s old club. The European rumor mill already has him following in Ronaldo’s shoes in a big-money move to Manchester United. Granted with only three caps to his name the World Cup will be the first chance for anyone in England — or anywhere outside of Portugal — to see him play.

Tactics/Style: Bento’s made it fairly simple for Portugal: get Ronaldo the ball in space on the break and allow him to work his magic. Portugal, as always, never have a great out-and-out striker even if Helder Postiga scored six goals in qualifying. The onus is on Ronaldo — or a defender like Bruno Alves or Pepe coming forward on set pieces to put the ball in the net. A functional three-man midfield of João Moutinho, Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles/Carvalho does the dirty work.

If Ronaldo’s leg injury — a storyline gaining steam this week — is real, all bets are off.

RELATED: The Big Lead 2014 World Cup Previews

WAG of Note:  Reminder, this “WAG of Note” and Meireles’ wife, Ivone Viana, is certainly noteworthy in terms of body art. We’ve also “written” extensively about Ronaldo’s better half, Irina Shayk on this site.

The United States’ best-case scenario vs. Portugal: Ronaldo tweaks his ailing muscles flexing for himself in front of a mirror in the pregame warmups and subsequently can’t play.

The United States’ worst-case scenario vs. Portugal: Ronaldo is the Ronaldo we saw vs. Sweden, so unless Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron & Co.  decide to dig a WWI trench in front of  Tim Howard’s goal, there’s nothing to slow him down.

Odds of winning: 28-to-1

More Hair, Don’t Care: For a long time writing “Pepe” into a social media platform was akin to using a “four-letter” word.  The Real Madrid defender was a noted hatchet man and almost universally loathed, as everyone assumed he played with a prison shiv in his waistband. Oddly, ever since Pepe decided to grow his hair out, the backlash seems to have subsided and more people seem to accept him as one of the game’s “characters.”

A Moment for Eusebio: Portugal’s greatest soccer icon, Eusebio, died on Jan. 5 of this year. His brilliance in England carried his team to a third place finish at the 1966 World Cup. What stands out about Eusebio is he seems like one of few players from that era who you could drop into the modern game and his greatness wouldn’t suffer.

Random Question: Aside from Tim Howard, whom he was briefly teammates with at Manchester United, do you think Ronaldo could name or identify any player on the current U.S. National Team roster? (My guess: no.)

Group Outlook: Germany is ripe for the picking in the first match, however Portugal hasn’t been a quick starter at the World Cup during the 21st Century. In 2002 its ‘Golden Generation’ lost to Bruce Arena’s U.S. team 3-2. Four years later it squeaked past former colony Angola 1-0 and then drew Ivory Coast 0-0 in 2010. As expected the June 21 game in Manaus vs. the U.S. will be the key match for both squads.

For what little it’s worth, the U.S. has already defeated Portugal at a World Cup. Portugal might not have had Ronaldo that day in South Korea, but it still had Luis Figo, Rui Costa  among others in their prime.

Last word: Ronaldo. Ronaldo. Ronaldo. As he goes, so goes Portugal. The problem for Portugal? It’s not 1986 anymore. As great as one player might be, in modern soccer one player isn’t going to carry his team through seven World Cup games. Zinedine Zidane was an inspirational force for France in both 1998 and 2006, but needed help from his very talented friends. Same goes for Ronaldo in 2002 or Romario in 1994 in Brazil’s triumphs. Spain in 2010 was a collective approach, as was Italy four years earlier.

Ronaldo is the best in the world, but he can’t do it in Brazil alone. Ronaldo, if healthy, will certainly provide many GIF-able moments, but unless Portugal adopts an ultra-defensive gameplan and punishes opponents on the counter, there might not be enough there to make a very deep run and even in that scenario it could be at the mercy of penalty kicks.

If Ronaldo isn’t 100 percent at the start of the tournament, Portugal’s stay in Brazil will be brief bar some completely unforeseen chain of events.

 

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