World Cup group stage opponents: Spain, Morocco, Iran
Fixtures: Spain (15th June), Morocco (20th June), Iran (25th June)
The Portugal team that won the 2016 European Championships could be revamped in Russia as the new generation of Portuguese stars look set to replace this ageing side.
The spine of the team, Rui Patricio, Pepe, Joao Moutinho & Cristiano Ronaldo, are now approaching their mid 30’s, and though Ronaldo is in a rich vein of form they cannot rely on his goals forever.
Portugal enjoyed a hugely successful qualification phase, winning nine of their 10 qualifiers, finishing top of the group, level with Switzerland.
Potent in attack
The 15 goals scored by Ronaldo and 9 from Andre Silva meant that the two strike partners scored all but 5 of Portugal’s goals in qualifying.
And although they conceded just four goals in the 10 qualifiers, their defence looks weaker than most of the countries aiming to lift the World Cup.
At right back, Cedric Soares (Southampton) and Joao Cancelo (Inter Milan) will battle it out to play on the right side of the defence.
Both are struggling for form this season, with Cedric on the verge of relegation to the Championship, and Cancelo rotating between the Inter first team & bench.
Cancelo only featured in in 3 qualifiers, but scored 2 goals, although he saw red when Holland beat Portugal 3-0 in their most recent friendly.
At left back, Santos can count on Marco Rui, a rotation player at Roma, and Raphael Guerreiro, who signed for Borussia Dortmund after impressing for Portugal at Euro 2016.
24-year-old Guerreiro is a talented crosser and provides quality from set pieces. He would be my choice over Rui, as he can also play a number of positions.
The centre of defence does appear to be a problem in my opinion. Rolando, an ageing Bruno Alves of Rangers, and 34-year-old Jose Fonte, who left struggling West Ham to move to China, are the options.
The experience in the ranks of Fernando Santos’ men will have a huge impact on the younger players in the Portuguese team, many of whom will be going into their first major tournament.
Santos also has 35-year-old veteran Pepe in his ranks. The tenacious former Real Madrid man may not be able to play every game, but his knowledge of performing under pressure could prove invaluable.
Can Ronaldo become the greatest?
Going forward, Portugal don’t have the same quality they had in the past. Deco and Luis Figo gave the Portuguese a lot more optimism in Germany 06 compared to Joao Moutinho and Andre Gomes, the latter who left Valencia for big money last year.
Gomes is now 24 and does not look the £55 million signing Barcelona invested in to replace Andres Iniesta, who is set to leave the Catalan side this summer.
Joao Mario is starting to step up at West Ham and started on the right for much of the qualifying campaign.
Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life, and this could be his last chance to lift the famous trophy.
Back to back major tournament victories would make him one of the best sportsmen of all time with all that he’s already won.
Ronaldo to teach the kids a thing or two?
If Ronaldo can use his experience to teach hot prospects Goncalo Guedes (Valencia) and Andre Silva (Milan), he could help them to partner him in a dangerous looking from three.
Guedes is on-loan from PSG, where he struggled to get first-team football last season, leaving after the arrivals of Neymar and Mbappe.
Andre Silva didn’t manage a single league goal at Milan until last month but netted winning goals in back-to-back matches and is back in the frame at the Bianconeri.
In the Europa League this season he’s bagged himself 8 goals and I just don’t think he suits Serie A.
I reckon he and Ronaldo complement each other well and could be a threat to the Spanish defence in that crucial first group game.
How far can they go?
My prediction is that Portugal will get out of the group in second place behind what looks a dangerous Spain team.
However, I think Spain will defeat Portugal, with all their attacking talent. I think Portugal could cause them problems, and will surely beat Morocco and Iran.
But if they suffer a heavy loss to Spain, the Morocco match could be tricky, especially if they get a morale-boosting win against Iran.
Morocco are without defeat since early June and have won 12 of their last 15 outings.
In the knockout rounds, there are many more teams with stronger squads, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will struggle.
Group A (Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia), looks like the weakest on paper, and I think they’ll have the better of whoever they face in the last 16.
In the latter stages of the competition, Ronaldo could pick teams off with the form he’s in, and his knack of scoring in big games.
I’m excited to watch this Portuguese team as I’ve always rated a manager who builds from the back, and it will be interesting to see if Santos goes with experience or youth.
Image used: Embed from Getty Images