Portugal need more than Ronaldo magic

Portugal need more than Ronaldo magic

With the Real Madrid superstar nursing injuries, his team-mates will have to raise the bar

Portugal's troubles in the World Cup qualifiers have shown that they will need a lot more than an on-song Cristiano Ronaldo if they are to mount a serious challenge in Brazil.

Although they can beat any team on their day, Portugal are prone to unexplained lapses and can be chronically wasteful in attack. Portugal reached Brazil in style with Ronaldo netting all  their goals over the two legs of a memorable 4-2 aggregate playoff win over Sweden.

But that performance masked a difficult qualification campaign in which they were held to unexpected draws by Northern Ireland and Israel and forced into the drama of a two-leg playoff after losing Group F's top spot to Russia.

It could have been even worse had Ronaldo not dug them out of a hole in the match away to Northern Ireland, scoring a second-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win after they had trailed 2-1 and been reduced to 10 men. "We certainly had an inconsistent campaign. If that wasn't the case, we wouldn't have had to contest a playoff," said coach Paulo Bento.

"Even though we lost one of the games against Russia, we put in two good performances, but there were three other matches in which we didn't play so well."

After years of basing their game around a playmaker, firstly Rui Costa and then Deco, Portugal have changed their style to try and get the best out of Ronaldo. Although they traditionally play a possession game, under Bento they have started to mix this with long passes into space for Ronaldo and Nani to run on to.

After Ronaldo, midfielder Joao Moutinho has become the most influential player in the team. The Monaco player is part of a fluid three-man midfield triangle which dictates the pace, tirelessly recovering balls and delivering pinpoint passes.

Joao Pereira and Fabio Coentrao are two energetic full-backs who like to burst forward and, in Pepe and Bruno Alves, they have a fiery, intense pair of centre-backs, sometimes too much so.

There is plenty of experience in the side with Raul Meireles, Bruno, Postiga, Pepe and Pereira all over 30 and one of the criticisms aimed at Bento is that he has been too conservative in his team selections.

For a small country, Portugal have had an exceptional record at big tournaments over the past decade, reaching the final at Euro 2004, the semifinals at the 2006 World Cup, the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 and the semifinals of Euro 2012.

Despite this, they have not always pleased the neutrals and ultimately they have not won anything either, losing to Greece in the 2004 final in their own Lisbon backyard when Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari was their coach.

But one thing that is in their favour this time is that other teams are regarded as favourites and, despite their old colonial connection with Brazil and a shared language, there will be very little pressure on them from the home fans.

Modern-day Brazilians have more in common with the culture of the US rather than a distant European relation whose influence in South America has diminished over the decades since Portugal became economic, cultural and legal partners of the European Union.

There has often been a rough edge to Portugal's play and they were involved in a notorious game against the Netherlands in the 2006 World Cup which produced 16 yellow cards and four reds.

Portugal will certainly want to leave a better impression than they did in South Africa when they were involved in petulant goalless draws against Ivory Coast and Brazil.They bowed out after a negative performance in a 1-0 defeat to Spain, marred by an incident at the end when Ronaldo appeared to spit at a television camera.

Fighting to be  fit and ready

Cristiano Ronaldo finally ended Lionel Messi's four-year reign as football's best player in 2013 and a starring role for Portugal at the World Cup finals would cap another stellar season for the astonishing forward.

However, it will all boil down to how fit he is after a hectic season, with injuries cropping nearing the end as well as in the build-up phase of the World Cup.

The 29-year-old from humble roots on the island of Madeira is now a marketing phenomenon with almost 80 million followers on Facebook. He scooped his second Ballon d'Or award in January despite not winning any silverware with Real Madrid last season.

While he inspires a mixture of love and loathing among fans of all stripes, few would dispute he is one of the greatest goal-scorers to have played the game.

The sight of Ronaldo sprinting forward on another devastating Real counter-attack or smashing in a free-kick has become as familiar as that of Messi weaving his way towards goal and sliding the ball into the net.

Despite the deluge of goals, he has sometimes been accused of going missing in the big games and he failed to score against Spain in the round of 16 at the World Cup finals in 2010 or in the semifinals of Euro 2012.

However, after an erratic Portuguese qualifying campaign he single-handedly secured their berth at the finals in Brazil when he netted all four goals over the two legs of their 4-2 aggregate success against Sweden in November's playoff. 

 "We are not favourites which is good for us, it takes out a lot of pressure," Ronaldo said in March. "We know that Spain, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, they are favourites, which is fantastic for us. But I am quite confident we can do it. We have a difficult group, in my opinion, and we are going to go step by step, game by game. 

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