Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea
Let’s get the main reason out of the way. No one outside of Portugal wants to see giant pain in the ass, huffing his own farts, twice-accused rapist Cristiano Ronaldo — who has denied the allegations — hoist the trophy. It was bad enough in 2016 when he left the final injured that he made sure every camera in the Stade de France caught him “coaching” from the sideline so that no one would be under the impression he had no influence on his country’s biggest ever result. A lot has happened since, and almost none of it good. If the soccer world not-so-secretly hopes that Lionel Messi can complete his résumé it’s partly because A) it would be the one thing that Ronaldo hasn’t won and then likely won’t and B) simultaneously hoping that Ronaldo whiffs on a penalty on the group stage so hard his leg wheels around and boots his nose through his brain.
Now that that’s out of the way, below the three main favorites of Brazil, Argentina, and France, Portugal is most certainly in a collection of teams that could win the tournament with a couple of breaks. The other part of the equation (that would see most fans choking up their lunch at the thought) is that if they are to go far in Qatar, they will probably do it as they did when they won the Euros in France. And that is playing a style that causes one’s face to melt like they just released the Ark of the Covenant. A quick review: Portugal won two matches out of seven in France. They scored three goals in the knockout stages in normal time, and two of those were against Wales. Their match against Croatia in the Round of 16 will be in any discussion for the worst match of all time. The final against France wasn’t much better.
But hey, flags fly forever and all that. It’s a formula they’ve tried to replicate twice since without much success. They went out pretty meekly to Uruguay in the Round of 16 in Russia. Then they had a supremely weird Euro 2020(1), swinging wildly from smashing Hungary in Budapest to getting utterly thwacked by Germany and then drawing with France, only to be bounced by Belgium at the first knockout hurdle even though Belgium created next to nothing (1.4-0.2 in xG in Portugal’s favor, but sometimes expected goals only get you a flight home).
Looking at the squad, there is a jovial attacking force possible from what’s available. Fernando Santos could cobble something together with Rafael Leão, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, João Felix, Vitinha, and one or two others that would get people off the couch regularly. Diogo Jota missing out through injury is a problem, but there are enough weapons here to still be pretty tasty.
But that’s not how Santos works. Portugal defends first, and second, and they’ll worry about the attacking later. And they can do that too. Ruben Neves is one of the better holding midfielders in the Premier League, and Ruben Dias and Danilo Pereira a pretty mean central defensive pairing. And as stated over and over on these pages, for a short tournament with a short run-up, it’s a lot simpler to install a defensive, compact plan than an expansive, attacking one.
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It does seem like Santos is trying to shift, however. Neves has been left to man the defensive shield alone, with Bruno Fernandes moving into midfield along with William Carvalho, allowing for a front three of Ronaldo, Silva, and Leão. That’s basically a five-man attack, contrasted against punting it up to ol’ No. 7 as we’ve seen in the past. Of course, cramming Silva, Fernandes, and Carvalho onto the field at once leaves them pretty narrow, which is how you see a team like Germany with rampaging fullbacks tear them apart. The same goes for Serbia, who got a draw and a win over Portugal in qualifying. All three of their group opponents have wide players who can wreak havoc if given too much space.
The other issue, of course, is how Ronaldo can blunt that attacking verve. We’ve already seen with Manchester United how Fernandes becomes a shell of a player with Ronaldo stepping into his space all the time. Silva wants to get to where Ronaldo is standing a lot as well, and you’re wasting all that Leão can do if he’s purely shunted out wide to accommodate Ronaldo. But Santos isn’t about to drop his captain and country’s biggest icon, is he?
That said, there are few teams that can boast both a defense and attack that you can see being good enough to win, at least in the second tier of contenders. Spain doesn’t have a forward. England is…England. Germany is just kind of a wonky outfit. The Dutch don’t have a striker either. Portugal has tons of depth at fullback and in attack, and Neves can be backed up by João Palhinha. The only trouble spot is if Dias or Pereira gets hurt or suspended.
The draw is pretty kind to them as well. If they win this group, and they should, they’ll duck Brazil (though a third meeting with Serbia would have the nerves jangling). Likely Belgium or a beatable Spain or Germany or Japan would await in the quarters. The semis will see France, if they have any players left, or possibly England.
Maybe Portugal gets caught in between, unable to stick to the defensive attitude that got them their only major trophy and too smitten by the attacking possibilities. But we know they have the know-how for this. And they have one of the most dangerous players on the counter in Leão. It doesn’t have to be pretty, and Portugal has proven they can be functional.
Portugal might have wanted a slightly easier group, but it could have been way tougher. Ghana is sort of a mess right now, hiring a part-time manager Otto Addo less than a year ago. They’ve had a flux of players switch their eligibility to them in the past year, and thus haven’t been able to settle on a lineup. Their run of form has been awful, going out in the group stage of AFCON without winning a game, and getting two draws against Nigeria in the playoff to qualify. They’ve only beaten Madagascar and Nicaragua in their last 10 matches. Their likely starting forward, Felix Afena-Gyan, is a spot starter for Cremonese. They can defend though, and that’s probably what they will concentrate on, with a backline of Daniel Armartey, Alexander Djiku, Denis Odoi, and Baba Rahman. Normally, Arsenal’s Thomas Partey would shield them as he does for the Gunners, but Ghana has holes all over midfield that he’s been used to plug at various times.
It is finally time for the next generation of Uruguay, though Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are still hanging around. But this is a team that’s built more around Darwin Nuñez, Fede Valverde, and Rodrigo Bentancur. Diego Godin has still been picked, but it feels like he’s there more as a mentor to Ronald Araujo or his former Atletico teammate Jose Giménez. Valverde, who has been a revelation for Madrid so far this season, plays a little more in midfield for his country, which certainly makes them vibrant. But in true Uruguayan tradition, the defense is pretty goddamn slow, and just how much they want to get forward and use the skills of Nunez, Valverde, and Suarez versus exposing that stodgy backline will be the tough balance for manager Diego Alonso.
South Korea is sweating just how healthy Son Heung-Min can be after breaking his face a couple of weeks ago. He is unquestionably the team’s biggest star, and with him alone South Korea would be a threat against Uruguay or Ghana simply on the counter, given the magic Son Heung-Min has weaved at Spurs.
But much like Ghana, this team’s strength may be in defense. Kim Min-jae is currently anchoring the defense of Napoli, only the most fun team in the world right now, and will do the same for his country in Qatar. Under manager Paulo Bento, this is a far more patient team than you may remember South Korea being, the seemingly tireless pressing outfit all over the field. They sauntered out of an admittedly easy qualifying group, though recent results in friendlies have them on edge. They got clubbed by Brazil in June, and drew with Costa Rica in September. There have been wins over non-World Cup participants like Egypt and Paraguay, and it’s tough to ever know what to make of friendlies. South Korea is always a tough out, and if Son Heung-Min is healthy they won’t make it easy on the others but appear to be lacking the firepower Uruguay or Portugal can produce.
Most likely manager to get red carded: Let’s not worry about that, because with Addo, Alonso, and Bento this is far and away the Group of Death when it comes to manager handsomeness.
Best jerseys: Portugal, when they stick to their more traditional color of maroon rather than the neon red they sometimes opt for, always look pretty damn slick. Both the home and away jerseys this time around are no exception.
Schedule: Thursday, Nov. 24 — Uruguay v. South Korea (8 a.m. EST), Portugal vs. Ghana (11 a.m. EST)
Monday, Nov. 28 — South Korea v. Ghana (8 a.m. EST), Portugal vs. Uruguay (2 p.m. EST)
Friday, Dec. 2 — Portugal v. South Korea, Uruguay v. Ghana (10 a.m. EST)