With or without Cristiano Ronaldo? A question that has seemed almost blasphemous for more than a decade with the mercurial attacker banging in goals for fun everywhere, this season has been different. A sulking bit-part player for Manchester United, Ronaldo has scored just three times in 16 games so far. Many are calling for change.
This Portugal squad is as talented as any, but they still botched qualifying at the first attempt. Just one point from their final two games meant Serbia finished first, sending Portugal to a tough play-off route with Turkey up first and surely the reigning European champion Italy next. North Macedonia didn’t think so though, sending the Italians home and setting up a decider with Portugal where there was no surprise.
How do they play?
Long-time head coach Fernando Santos has used a variety of formations but changed his often-used 4-3-3 into more of a 4-2-3-1 in September to find balance. Ronaldo won’t be seen doing much defensive work and the attacking midfielders are all more or less creative players too, making the midfield double pivot vital.
With players of great individual quality, the Portuguese dribble a lot, and preferred using the right wing to the left in qualifying. There are certain areas where they are found lacking though: they are not very good in the air, winning less than half of aerial duels, and considering the squad available, one would expect them to be much more effective with through passes as well.
Why they can win?
The 2016 European champions have squad depth to match any competitor. They have no trouble scoring when things are clicking and have a world-class backline to rely upon. And as life itself has a penchant for outdoing fairytales, who is brave enough to bet against a Ronaldo vs Messi final to settle the debate?
Why they can lose?
A 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo does not instill fear in opponents and will be a passenger while younger and better options watch on from the bench, knowing all too well that Fernando Santos won’t admit to making a mistake. And a team with 39-year-old Pepe, whose best-before date was around ten years ago, just can’t go all the way.
The leading stars
Surely it has to be Ronaldo, the man who has scored a simply ridiculous 117 international goals in 191 games. All the trouble at Manchester might favor Fernando Santos, as Ronaldo will be coming to the World Cup much fresher than most and with a chip on his shoulder. Success is not up to solely him, but he will have his moments.
The fresh faces
23-year-old Rafael Leao only debuted at international level a year ago, but what a year it has been. The AC Milan striker lifted his first Serie A title in May while winning that season’s Most Valuable Player award, finished 14th in Ballon d’Or voting (while being the best Portuguese), and has continued in the same vein this autumn. He hasn’t scored for Portugal yet, but this will change rather sooner than later.