With traditional European giants Holland and Italy missing, this World Cup feels like it lacks a little depth. As a result, the major players will be looking to navigate a way into the quarter-finals with relative ease, and from there on in anything can happen.
It would be a surprise to see a new name on the trophy but the same could have been said ahead of Euro 2016, where exactly that came to pass. Portugal won few fans for their pragmatic style, and they certainly rode their luck on their way to the title. With six draws in normal time and only a 2-0 semi-final victory over Wales seeing them complete the job inside 90 minutes they were far from dominant, but they kept finding a way to get through and were fiendishly hard to score against in all but their wild 3-3 group stage draw with Hungary. They arrive in Russia somewhat unfancied compared to the traditional giants and former winners, but could perhaps surprise once more.
With manager Fernando Santos retained, the strategy is unlikely to be very different to that which brought such success in 2016. Keep it tight, and deploy a defence-first strategy knowing that in Cristiano Ronaldo they possess a bone-fide match winner.
They look to have benefited from a fairly kind draw too. They will be heavy favourites to qualify out of Group B alongside Spain, and that would generate a round of 16 match-up against one of two teams from Group A: possibly the weakest group in the tournament after housing hosts Russia as seeds. Providing they negotiate that, France or Argentina could follow in a quarter-final to savour, but as we’ve seen so many times before, rarely does the World Cup run entirely to expectation.
The team itself has a couple of players in particular that may well enhance it’s attacking prowess above and beyond what we saw two years ago. Bernardo Silva missed the Euros and enlivens an otherwise stoic midfield, while Gonçalo Guedes is a young talent with great promise. There are also genuinely decent options at full-back, with new Leicester signing Ricardo Pereira, Dortmund’s Raphaël Guerreiro, Napoli’s Mário Rui and Southampton’s Cédric Soares all offering good quality.
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Less favourable is the blend of experience and age at centre-back, though Pepe’s journey to Besiktas has seen him as part of the team that conceded the fewest number of goals in that league this season. José Fonte and Bruno Alves complete a set of veteran centre-backs with an average age of 35, and only inexperienced 21-year-old Benfica man Rúben Dias offers a youthful option. If anything this potential vulnerability may increase any pragmatism in the midfield, where William Carvalho will once more likely screen in front while João Moutinho endeavours to pull strings. João Mário will also be hoping to see game time having revitalised his career in England at West Ham after a slightly mixed period with Inter.
The last Portuguese side to perform well at the World Cup was in 2006, the latter end of the so-called “Golden Generation”. That team reached the semi-finals and with former and future legends of the game in Luis Figo and Ronaldo, was voted the tournament’s most entertaining team.
However, that side was flawed too. A 33-year-old Pauleta started as the main striker and the team lacked decisive punch in terms of goals. This time Ronaldo is the ageing talisman searching - possiblyfor the last time - for the one thing absent from his illustrious CV and with a team that is similarly bolstered with experience and promise for the future.
It’s easy to argue a cogent case for the chances of the usual suspects: Brazil and France could have picked two squads capable of competing, Spain and Germany retain the class of squads filled with serial winners for club and country alike, while Argentina can never be counted out with Lionel Messi in their ranks. However, these teams’ chances are well reflected in their odds - Argentina are trading at around the 9/1 mark, while the other four are in the mix for favouritism at between 4/1 and 6/1.
And that’s the reason why Portugal are worth speculative interest. Ronaldo and co. are available at around 25/1 and an each-way bet, with a return if they make the final, looks a solid play here.