Por: Inside The World Cup
With Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks it sometimes seems anything is possible, but a lack of new talent emerging since Euro 2012 is a worry for Paulo Bento’s side
This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2014 Experts’ Network, a co-operation between 32 of the best media organisations from the countries who have qualified for the finals in Brazil. theguardian.com is running previews from four countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 12 June.
On 21 June 2012, Portugal said goodbye to the European Championship with these names in the starting XI: Rui Patrício; João Pereira, Bruno Alves, Pepe, Fabio Coentrão; Raul Meireles, Miguel Veloso, João Moutinho; Nani, Hugo Almeida and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The team of Paulo Bento had a very good tournament, only exiting in a dramatic semi-final shootout with Spain. If you remember Portugal in that tournament, then don’t except any changes. In the second leg of the play-off against Sweden, on 19 November 2013, the national coach used the same starting XI.
The Portuguese national team has followed a predictable road on the way to the World Cup in Brazil. The good news is that Cristiano Ronaldo is in the best form of his life, scoring more goals for Portugal than ever even if the last few games of Real Madrid’s season suggested a concern around his fitness. On the other hand, Bento has a starting eleven with more age and experience. Now, that team has an average age of 28.6 years old.
João Pereira (then Sporting, now Valencia), Bruno Alves (Zenit, Fenerbahçe), Miguel Veloso (Genoa, Dinamo Kiev), Raul Meireles (Chelsea, Fenerbahçe), Joao Moutinho (FC Porto, Monaco) have all changed clubs since 2012, leaving the goalkeeper Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon) as the only one still playing in the Portuguese championship.
The national coach, who renewed his contract recently (until 2016), knows that the time to change will come, sooner or later. For now, Bento sticks to his plan and will prepare the usual 4-3-3, even if there are some problems in the attacking sector.
Rui Patrício continues to provide confidence between the posts, João Pereira has improved as a player at Valencia and the two central defenders (Bruno Alves and Pepe) show the same characteristics: hard, strong in the air, sometimes uncoordinated under pressure. On the left side of defence, Fabio Coentrão continues to show tremendous stamina for club and country.
The midfield has more experience now, with the three first choices trying out different championships in the last few years. Veloso lacks some strength to help the defence and faces the competition of the hot prospect William Carvalho. Raul Meireles didn’t have a very good season at Fenerbahçe, but Portugal always expects his balance and João Moutinho can perhaps be even better, now that he has gained some maturity in the challenging Ligue 1 of France.
Up front, Ronaldo hopes for the best international display ever. He scored four goals in the play-off against Sweden and broke some more historic records at Real Madrid. His fitness is a concern but he will always play. And who else? Nani, even without regular appearances at Manchester United and with a compromising injury, is expected to start. Silvestre Varela (Porto) is the alternative. Hugo Almeida occupies the central position up front, but he can also drift to the left side and allow Ronaldo to show up in the centre of the attack during the match, surprising the opponents. Helder Postiga is the other striker but has had big injury problems and remains an enigma.
The rise of William Carvalho, the promising defensive midfielder from Sporting Lisbon, and the problems in the attack might put Bento’s B Plan into action for the most competitive games, certainly the opening meeting with Germany on 16 June. Carvalho can play in behind Veloso, Moutinho and Meireles, forming a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo and Almeida up front. This is the alternative, but the main formation is still the most likely: the same 4-3-3 and the same players as in 2012.
Who is the player who is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
I would have to say João Moutinho, to the fans that still don’t know him already. The midfielder was held back a little by playing in the Portuguese League, despite huge performances for Sporting Lisbon and then Porto. At the beginning of 2013-14, Moutinho was bought by Monaco and had to adapt to another championship. He proved his worth, even if the transition period was naturally difficult. Now, Portugal’s own Xavi is prepared to demonstrate even more quality in the World Cup. When you see Cristiano Ronaldo running like mad, keep this in the mind: he is ready to receive a magical pass from Moutinho. Everyone in Portugal knows what he is capable of. Some opponents don’t.
Who is the player who is going to disappoint the most?
Nani is currently the biggest concern in the national team. His lack of match fitness is well-known, since his situation in Manchester United did not improve through a difficult season and he got a complicated injury during the season. When he was fit, Paulo Bento always showed confidence in Nani, but the truth is that the talented winger did not always repay that faith.
What is the realistic aim for your team at the World Cup and why?
At Euro 2012, the Portuguese fans expected a difficult task in the group stage and Bento’s team surprised everybody by reaching the semi-finals. Now, with Ronaldo scoring more goals for the national team than ever, one should expect Portugal to prove their worth until at least the quarter-finals of the competition. After that, maybe there isn’t enough quality throughout the team to reach the final.