Portugal made a surprising run to the semifinals of Euro 2012, narrowly losing out to Spain on penalty kicks in a game many thought the Portuguese deserved to win. It marked the second straight tournament where Portugal were eliminated by their archrivals, as Spain won a 1-0 Round-of-16 matchup in South Africa.
As they did before the 2010 World Cup, though, Portugal struggled to dominate a qualifying group it should have won comfortably. After opening the qualifying campaign with an unimpressive 2-1 victory over group minnows Luxembourg, Portugal drew with Israel twice and Northern Ireland in Porto, allowing Russia to win the group with 22 points, one more than Portugal. Striker Helder Postiga led the team during qualifying with six goals, while centerback Bruno Alves and some guy named Ronaldo chipped in four each.
By virtue of their second place finish, Portugal were drawn into a home-and-home playoff against Sweden, which pitted two of the best players in the world against each other: Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In the first leg, a timely headed goal by Ronaldo saw Portugal take a slim advantage into Sweden.
The return leg wasn't so much Portugal vs. Sweden as it was Cristiano vs. Zlatan. Both players put on a stunning display. Ronaldo opened the scoring in the 50th minute, but Ibra answered in the 68th. Ibra then rocketed in a free kick in the 72nd to put Sweden on top, but Ronaldo countered right back in the 77th and the 79th, snuffing out Sweden's World Cup hopes.
Goalkeepers: Beto (Sevilla), Eduardo (SC Braga), Rui Patrício (Sporting).
Defenders: André Almeida (Benfica), Bruno Alves (Fenerbahçe), Fábio Coentrão (Real Madrid), João Pereira (Valência), Neto (Zenit), Pepe (Real Madrid), Ricardo Costa (Valencia)
Midfielders: João Moutinho (Mónaco), Miguel Veloso (Dynamo Kiev), Raul Meireles (Fenerbahçe), Rúben Amorim (Benfica), William Carvalho (Sporting), Rafa (SC Braga)
Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Éder (SC Braga), Hélder Postiga (Lazio), Hugo Almeida (Besiktas), Nani (Manchester United), Varela (FC Porto),Vieirinha (Wolfsburg)
Selecção das Quinas (The Selection of the Five Shields (a reference to the Portuguese flag))
Cristiano Ronaldo, Winger
It is impossible to understate the importance of Cristiano Ronaldo to this Portugal team. No team is so reliant on one player for success in this World Cup, and Ronaldo is so good that Portugal's reliance on him isn't even necessarily problematic.
The first place you see Ronaldo's impact in the team's formation. Manager Paulo Bento uses a 4-3-3, with Ronaldo starting on the left flank. Putting Ronaldo on the wing allows him more space to do what he does best: counter-attack and run at defenders. If Bento opted to use a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo as one of the front men, it would force his star to focus on holding the ball up to link overlapping midfielders into the attack, a task better suited for a Ford pickup truck like Hugo Almeida than Ronaldo's Ferrari. The 4-3-3 gives Ronaldo the freedom to roam up and down the flank, while making sure that he has targets to aim at if he wants to swing in a cross.
Portugal's style of play is also designed specifically to maximize Ronaldo's effectiveness. The squad is at its best when pressuring high up the field and counter-attacking with incredible speed. In its 1-0 first leg win over Sweden, a dull game that Portugal were lucky to get a goal from, they controlled 68% of the possession, a very un-Portugal like number. In the second leg though, with Ronaldo at his hat-trick scoring best, Portugal had a paltry 38% of the possession. Bento has coached this team with the sole purpose of turning changes of possession into free-flowing attacking opportunities, precisely the situations in which Ronaldo is peerless.
Oh by the way, Ronaldo is in the form of his life. In 30 La Liga appearances this year, Ronaldo has 31 goals and 9 assists, and this year he broke the all-time record for most goals over a single Champions League campaign, with 17. At 29 years old, he's in the absolute prime of his career, and it will be nearly impossible for any team to truly contain him over 90 minutes. Realistically, the best teams can do is hope to limit his opportunities, and make the rest of the Portuguese team actually do enough to win.
But, as you may have heard, Ronaldo is not at 100%. He has missed all of Portugal's friendlies in the lead-in to the World Cup, and there is some speculation that he will not be fully fit by Portugal's game against Germany. The thing is, though, a 70% Ronaldo is still better than 90% of the World.
João Moutinho, Midfielder
Moutinho is exactly the sort of player that Portugal need more of; he's solid and reliable in the center of midfield, with enough skill and creativity to break down a defense. Though he's only 5'7", Moutinho is used interchangeably as an attacking or defensive midfielder, depending on the opponent. He was at his best for Porto in 2012-2013, racking up 12 assists, which earned him a move to nouveau-riche Monaco, in France's Ligue 1, for a cool $42 million.
Yet Moutinho struggled for his new team, perhaps under the pressures of his transfer fee. He managed only 1 goal and 8 assists in 34 appearances across all competitions for Monaco, and a poll by L'Equipe at the end of the year listed Moutinho on its list of top 2013-2014 flops. Though his overall numbers weren't terrible, Moutinho failed to assert himself in the middle of the pitch like you would expect from the midfielder of the 2nd best team in the league.
If Portugal are going to have any shot at making real progress in this tournament, they will need Moutinho to do two things: break up opponent attacks, and send perfect outlet balls to Ronaldo. If Portugal are to capitalize on their dark horse status, they will need the 27-year-old Moutinho to once again be a dominant force in the midfield.
There were legitimate questions as to whether Nani—one of Portugal's best-known players by virtue of his 7 year tenure at Manchester United—would even be named to this Portugal squad. Though he's only 27, his recent form has dropped off precipitously; he battled injuries, fell out of favor with David Moyes at United, and only made a total of 12 appearances this past season.
At his best, Nani is Ronaldo-lite. He's a wizard with the ball at his feet, and likes to cut in from the left side onto his right foot to curl shots or crosses into the box, as in this spectacular goal. For Portugal, though, Ronaldo occupies the left wing, so Nani moves to the right. In theory, the defense's preoccupation with stopping Ronaldo should enable Nani more time and space to wreak havoc. Yet he only has 13 career goals for Portugal in 72 games, and only 1 in 13 games since the beginning of 2013.
Nani's not alone in struggling to make an impact for Portugal, however. At Euro 2012, only one Portuguese forward not named Ronaldo scored a goal. And apart from Portugal's 7-0 thrashing of North Korea at the 2010 World Cup, the team didn't score a single goal in the tournament. Nani's prodigious potential and skill means that he receives the brunt of the criticism when Portugal fail to produce goals, but as the last two tournaments show, he's by no means alone.
Even if Ronaldo isn't playing, Bento appears to be sticking with the tried-and-tested 4-3-3 formation, which morphs into a 4-5-1 when defending. Against Mexico on Friday night, Bento experimented with little-used forward Eder in the center, flanked by Nani and Vierinha. They looked – to put it kindly – unimpressive. This is a team whose offense relies on the speed, creativity, and sheer unpredictability of Ronaldo.
It's not that the rest of the Portuguese team is bad; in fact they have some very accomplished players, especially in midfield. It's just that they're not great, and tend to underperform in Ronaldo's shadow.
That's going to be the question for this Portugal squad. Can anyone step up to complement Ronaldo? Is there a striker out there – Hugo Almeida? Helder Postiga? Bueller? – who can capitalize on the opportunities this team will create? Will Moutinho and Nani play to their potential in what is perhaps their last World Cups?
What's frightening, at least for fans of other teams in Group G, is that the answer to all those questions might be "no" and Portugal could still advance. No one would be shocked if this team beat up on Ghana and the US, lost to Germany, and finished comfortably in second.
Their game against the US may be the bellwether for how Portugal will perform in Brazil. Unlike the other teams Portugal will face in Group G, the US are also a counter-attacking side, though unlike Portugal it's probably not because they choose not to retain possession. Faced with an opponent that won't open itself up as much to counter-attacks, Portugal will have to rely on interior midfielders like Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, and newcomer William Carvalho to dictate the pace of the game and break down the American defense.
All times Eastern
June 16, noon: Germany vs. Portugal at Arena Fonta Nova
June 22, 6 p.m.: USA vs. Portugal at Arena Amazonia
June 26, noon: Portugal vs. Ghana at Estadio Nacional
Top image by Sam Woolley; photos via Getty