World Cup 2018 team preview: Portugal has questions beyond Cristiano Ronaldo

FC Yahoo

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. First up in Group B is Portugal.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group B: 35.1%
Odds to advance: 84.6%
Odds to win World Cup: 3.8%
Elo rank: 6
Yahoo Sports power rank: 7

Our writers say: Cristiano Ronaldo is the headliner, the catalyst and the focal point. He’s also a convenient distraction from Portugal’s many problems – namely, an aging defense that restricts the Portuguese stylistically. They ground their way to a European title two summers ago, but will need double the good fortune to repeat the feat on the global stage. Henry Bushnell

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal are the defending European champions. Can they repeat the feat at the World Cup? (Getty)
Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal are the defending European champions. Can they repeat the feat at the World Cup? (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 7th
Best World Cup finish: 3rd place (1966)
2014 finish: Group stage (1-1-1)
Qualifying: Topped UEFA Group B ahead of Switzerland
Schedule: Spain (Friday, June 15, 2 p.m., Fox), Morocco (Wednesday, June 20, 8 a.m., FS1), Iran (Monday, June 25, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group B preview]

Squad

Manager: Fernando Santos
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo (F)
Top players: Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva (M)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: There’s a decent amount of high- to mid-tier talent in the squad. But all rivers flow to Ronaldo. He is simply sensational, and the centerpiece for all that Portugal does going forward. His presence renders dominance or control of a game unnecessary, because one moment of brilliance can turn it on its head. That allows Santos to program his team in a relatively defensive posture – the chief reason it conceded just one knockout-round goal en route to a Euro 2016 title, and just four throughout qualifying.

Why they’ll lose games: There are growing concerns about the back four that achieved that defensive success, though. The contenders to start at center back are now 34, 35 and 36 years old. The only prospect who has emerged, Ruben Dias, just turned 21 and probably isn’t ready. Portugal, therefore, has to play cautiously to protect them. And that’s a problem, especially against lesser foes. Portugal isn’t good at picking minnows apart. Bernardo Silva is too constrained by the system. The rest of the midfield is uninspiring. Santos’ cautious approach worked two summers ago, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work this time around.

How they’ll play: With one holding midfielder, three central-ish midfielders ahead of him, and two up top … but with a strange lack of dynamism. The attack is very cross-heavy, in part because it is so dependent on Ronaldo, but also in part because there is an unwillingness to try other avenues. Portugal will rarely press ferociously high up the field; it won’t overload central attacking areas and pull defenders out of position. It will play at a relatively slow pace, and won’t be particularly entertaining, unless the ball is at Ronaldo’s feet.

Projected lineup (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio; Cedric, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Raphael Guerreiro; William Carvalho;Bernardo Silva, Joao Moutinho, Joao Mario; Cristiano Ronaldo, Goncalo Guedes.

Andre Silva was the presumed Ronaldo partner after starting nine of 10 qualifiers and finding the back of the net nine times. But Guedes started the final warmup friendly and bagged a brace. He’s better equipped to threaten Spain. Santos certainly could go back to Silva, but the best bet is that each starts at least one game in Russia.

Elsewhere, Bruno Fernandes could break into the 11 ahead of either Moutinho or Joao Mario. Adrien Silva would be the other option in midfield. Gelson Martins is the wild card off the bench.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: They have arguably the second-best player of all time.

Why to root for them: Because you appreciate Ronaldo’s greatness.

Why to root against them: Because you despise Ronaldo and his arrogant perfection.

If you’re going to watch one game … You can’t miss the showdown with Spain. But the other two should be intriguing as well.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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2018 World Cup preview hub
Ranking the top 100 players at the World Cup
FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
A tactical guide to the 2018 World Cup
How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit

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