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article imageOp-Ed: Portugal will rely on familiarity to end World Cup trophy curse

By Tyrrell Meertins     Jun 8, 2014 in Sports
All eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo in Brazil. Ronaldo needs to play at the World Cup as the tournament can't afford to be deprived of the best individual in world football, according to FIFA Ballon d’Or voting.
The flashy footwork, animated celebrations, unorthodox free-kick stance, and ability to frighten the opposing defence with a burst of pace epitomize the 29-year-old.
Ronaldo is currently at the peak of his powers, and due to his game being based around pace and power, another World Cup appearance –– playing at this ridiculously high-level –– isn’t certain. The Portuguese attacker is currently recovering from a muscle problem on his right thigh, and tendonitis in his left knee, but according to team doctors Ronaldo will be fully fit for the opener against Germany.
It’s been nearly a decade since tears incessantly poured down Ronaldo’s face following a heartbreaking defeat to Greece in Lisbon, and that’s been the closest Portugal’s come to lifting a major international honour. We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from Ronaldo since that tragic day in Lisbon, but Paulo Bento’s appointment as Portuguese manager –– along with the Madrid forward’s vast improvement on a yearly basis –– has seen the Madeira star consistently flourish on the international stage over the past two years.
Portugal is in a better place compared to four years ago. They failed to score in three of their four games in South Africa –– their goals came in a 7-0 thrashing of minnows North Korea –– due to their defence-minded approach. Meanwhile, a disappointing World Cup display ignited a dispute between Ronaldo and former coach Carlos Queiroz.
Under Bento, Portugal has transformed into a well-balanced outfit.
While there isn’t much change in their overall set-up, what’s certain is that Portugal is more than solely Ronaldo.
Bento has instilled a system to get the best out of the current Ballon d’Or winner, but there are other elements to this Portuguese side that many tend to overlook.
Bento has placed his trust in the players that succeeded under him two years ago, and it’s likely –– barring injury –– that 10 of the 11 starters at Euro 2012 will keep their starting spot in Brazil. Bento’s side is built around chemistry, togetherness, and familiarity, but if they stray away from the aforesaid traits Portugal's chances of making a deep run in the tournament –– or slim chances winning –– will decrease.
Portugal is expected to play in a 4-3-3, which effectively becomes a 4-5-1 when the opposition holds possession. Bento’s side is impressively organized and disciplined without the ball; they can effectively press higher up the pitch as a unit, or drop into two banks of four and press in midfield. Likewise, Portugal are at their utmost best when they attack in transition, quickly facilitating the ball from midfield into the opposition's third with the hopes of creating chances for the tournaments best counterattacking player in Ronaldo.
The Portuguese manager will be hoping that Pepe is fit to participate in their opening game against Germany, as the defence looks susceptible without the Madrid defender. The back four that was essential to Portugal’s road to the semifinals two years ago will be kept intact. Pepe and Bruno Alves offer strength defensively, and a goal threat via set-pieces, but are still vulnerable under pressure. Equally, Joao Pereira –– who needs to improve his deliveries from right back –– and Fabio Coentrao will need to surge forward into attack to create overloads, and space for the wingers to cut in and shoot.
Raul Meireles, Joao Moutinho, and Miguel Veloso will likely form a midfield trio; Meireles provides balance and energy, Veloso dictates the tempo from deep positions, and Moutinho can combine grit with incisive penetrating passes. Moutinho is an underrated midfielder capable of dominating a game in midfield, and playing defence-splitting balls to Ronaldo. At his best, the Monaco midfielder is the engine that makes Portugal tick.
If fit, Meireles and Moutinho are certain to start, but the emergence of Sporting midfielder William Carvalho could see Veloso dropped to the bench.
When teams are reluctant to press Veloso, the Portuguese midfielder is capable of dictating a match. However, teams will likely target the 28-year-old in order to disrupt Portugal’s buildup play. Likewise, Veloso doesn’t provide adequate protection ahead of the back four, and opposing attacking midfielders will receive the opportunity to exploit space between the lines.
While Carvalho may be 22-years-old, the Sporting midfielder possesses power, the ability to provide cover ahead of the back four in a tidy manner, and is also a reliable passer. It’s unlikely that Carvalho starts the opening game against Germany, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he played a part in the tournament.
Bento can also play a narrow 4-4-2 with Carvalho and Veloso in midfield, with Moutinho and Meireles shuttling from narrow positions. Carvalho is the ideal midfielder to play as the single-pivot in Bento’s system, but his inexperience at this level, along with the Portuguese manager’s trust in Veloso will be the defining factor.
Similar issues arise upfront for Portugal, as the wingers will be recovering from injuries and lack of playing time this season. Vieirinha and Nani were positive in Portugal’s friendly against Mexico, while Silvestre Varela’s form is still a mystery.
Eder’s availability offers another option to Bento upfront. The Braga striker –– who also returned from a long-term injury during the latter stages of the season –– is capable of creating his own chances, and providing a reliable physical presence in the box. Eder’s performance against Mexico was equally promising, as he fought to get on the end of crosses, and imposed his physical presence around the box.
Still, Bento will likely favour Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida.
Postiga’s injury issues this season could deprive him of a starting role, but he provides the wingers service and serves as an average poacher. Almeida, on the other hand, is a limited target man that can drift to either flank to link play, along with providing defensive cover and making decoy runs for Ronaldo.
The left flank has been a weakness for Portugal as of late, as teams aim to take advantage of Ronaldo’s freedom and overload Coentrao. Almeida, though, has displayed his discipline to protect his defenders, by moving towards the left to protect Coentrao, as Ronaldo searches for space to exploit on the counter-attack.
Portugal may not be the favourites to win the tournament in Brazil, but the team is well-equipped to make a deep run despite Bento’s decision to leave a few fan favourites at home. Considering they’re likely to face all-round superior opposition in the latter stages –– if they progress out of Group G –– they possess the experience and the personnel to pose a threat to any side on the counter-attack.
The key games for Portugal are group encounters against Ghana and the United States. Ironically, Bento’s side struggle to break down organized defensive units, and Portugal will be expected to break down the aforementioned nations. Jurgen Klinsmann’s side’s experience and organization, along with Ghana’s pace on the break could pose issues.
"It's going to be a balanced group with four strong teams so it's going to be very difficult for us, but we will fight to the end to achieve our first goal, which is to reach the knockout phase. We still have a few mistakes that we need to correct before the World Cup,” Bento said.
Ronaldo will need to dominate in Brazil, but Bento will need a valiant effort from his entire squad to replicate and exceed their Euro 2012 achievement.
Portugal have come close to international glory in the past, and as per usual, efficiency, consistency, and discipline will determine their fate this summer.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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