Key analysis: Can Portugal step up for Cristiano Ronaldo's last dance?

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Key analysis: Can Portugal step up for Cristiano Ronaldo's last dance?
Ronaldo will be appearing at his fifth and last World Cup
Ronaldo will be appearing at his fifth and last World Cup
FPF
Portugal will make their eighth appearance in a World Cup finals round, their sixth in a row since the World Cup in South Korea and Japan in 2002. A full affirmation of the equipa das Quinas in the last 20 years, reinforced with the ambition, for the first time, to be world champions, after having already won Europe in 2016. Some say this is the best Portuguese team ever, even though its main star, Cristiano Ronaldo, is making his last World Cup appearance.

From theory to practice, the truth is that since winning the Nations League in 2019, held in Porto, Portugal, there have been few successes for the National Team post-European Championship in France. In the 2020 European Championship they fell in the round of 16, against Belgium, and in the following year's Nations League lost against France, when a draw was enough, and missed the final four of the competition. This "just enough", happened again this year, when a draw against Serbia was enough to go on to the World Cup and Portugal lost in the Stadium of Light, forcing a lucky play-off, when after having beaten Turkey they met North Macedonia as the last obstacle, who eliminated Italy with a tremendous surprise.

Portugal come into this World Cup with their star in undeniable decline - Cristiano Ronaldo (37) is having arguably the worst season of his career, with their coach at the most questionable moment ever - Fernando Santos rose to heaven in 2016 and came close to descending to hell, should he miss out on this World Cup - but with raw material to, in fact, dream, supported by the full statements of Diogo Costa in goal, Cancelo and Nuno Mendes on the wings, Bernardo Silva in midfield and Rafael Leao in attack, where Diogo Jota, one of the major absences due to injury, will be missing. 

Strenghts

Portugal will have the best full-backs of all the teams in the World Cup. On the right side there are João Cancelo and Diogo Dalot, on the left side Nuno Mendes and Raphael Guerreiro. Four heavyweights for only two positions, leaving out other names like Mário Rui, Nélson Semedo, João Mário, Nuno Santos, among others. The Portuguese midfield also exudes quality and solutions. Silva and Bruno Fernandes bring the intensity of the Premier League, while William Carvalho and Rúben Neves provide the necessary consistency. Then, the all-terrain Matheus Nunes and Otávio, but also the new wave personified in Vitinha.

Weaknesses

Portugal's central defenders have long been a concern given the advanced age of their key players in recent years, namely Pepe (39) and José Fonte (38). Rúben Dias has made a name for himself at Manchester City, while António Silva, a 19-year-old central defender who has made a name for himself at Benfica alongside Argentina's Otamendi, will be making his full debut at the FIFA World Cup. However, taking into account that he has never played for the national team, and also considering Pepe's long-term injury, Portugal's defensive centre could prove to be one of its main weaknesses. Also in the attack, abounding options, the National Team no longer has an offensive reference as it was, in times past, Pauleta or even Nuno Gomes. André SilvaAndré Silva is not unquestionable, Gonçalo Ramos was called this time, taking into account his performance at Benfica, but the number 1 option should continue to be Ronaldo. 

Ideal XI

Diogo Costa - João Cancelo, Pepe, Rúben Dias, Nuno Mendes - Otávio, Rúben Neves, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva - Rafael Leão, Cristiano Ronaldo 

The choices for Portugal's starting eleven will be directly related to the tactical system Fernando Santos will adopt for this World Cup. Looking at the 26-man squad, and with the presence of Ramos and Silva, everything indicates that the selector will opt for greater offensive presence and, therefore, with two declared strikers in the team. And that will be, consequently, related with the end - or pause - of the 4x3x3 that has been more often used by Fernando Santos. The bet on 4x4x2, however, will be different from before. Portugal no longer have those classic wingers, like Nani, Ricardo Quaresma or even Ronaldo from the past. He has a lot of quality and versatility in midfield, which allows him to play with the so-called diamond, opting for a more defensive midfielder, between Neves and Carvalho, a more dynamic midfielder, like Fernandes or Silva, and then with interior midfielders, as he has been doing with Otávio.

In goal, the transition from Rui Patrício to Costa is certain. The FC Porto goalkeeper won his place in the qualification and his performances, both with the National Team and, above all, with the Dragons, particularly in the Champions League, leave no room for doubt.

In defence, if on the right there seems to be little doubt in relation to Cancelo's start over Dalot, on the left, the choice between Guerreiro and Mendes may depend a lot on the moment of form and the opponent that Portugal will face.

In midfield, Silva and Fernandes seem to be the starters. As for the attack, Ronaldo should keep his place, but it remains to be seen with whom and how many strikers.

Main doubts

There are several doubts in Portugal's eleven, especially considering that the change of tactic is not confirmed, from a 4-3-3 to a return to the 4-4-2 in diamond. Jota would, at the outset, be a starter in the Portuguese attack but, given his absence due to injury, the presence of Leão, who has continued the last season of enormous brilliance in the Italian champions, Milan, at the expense, for example, of João Félix, who has not been a starter at Atletico Madrid. In midfield, Otávio seems to fit the bill, due to his versatility and the fact that the Portuguese-Brazilian from FC Porto was crucial in the final stretch of Portuguese qualification. Finally, in defence, there is doubt regarding Pepe, who is in the final stages of recovery from the injury that has kept him away from the pitch. In full, he will be the starter alongside the indisputable Rúben Dias.

Prediction

Portugal faces Group H with good chances of qualifying, being favourites in all matches, even against Uruguay. The goal will be to finish first, avoiding the first place of Group H, which has Brazil, and measure forces, in theory, with Switzerland or Serbia. The debut against Ghana is decisive for these aspirations, and there is optimism, within the Portuguese National Team, a presence in late stages of this World Cup. The forecast points to a place in the top eight, in other words, a place in the quarter finals, remembering that the best ever classification of Portugal in World Cups goes back to the debut in the final stages, in 1966, with the third place thanks to the genius of Eusébio da Silva Ferreira. In 2006 came close, with 4th place.