World Cup 2014 Expert Interview: Portugal, Ronaldo and the back-up cast

As part of our World Cup coverage, we have interviewed journalists, correspondents, experts & writers representing each of the 32 countries to give you, the readers, a better understanding of the 32 nations participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Here are the list of interviewees.

Portugal World Cup Interview (1)

For this interview, focusing on Portugal, we spoke to Tom Kundert. He is the editor of PortuGoal.net and the author of  “A Journey Through Portuguese Football”. Follow him on Twitter @Portu_Goal

After struggling to get past the qualifiers, this Portugal side seems to be one of the weakest in recent memory. Is there any hope & expectation among Portuguese supporters for the national team to perform at the World Cup? Can this lack of pressure actually work in Paulo Bento’s favour? Or are they still too comparatively weak on paper?

First of all we have to take into account that historically Portugal’s qualifying performance has little significance when in comes to the real thing, i.e. tournament football. They struggled to get to the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, needing a play-off on each occasion, but played well at both tournaments (especially two years ago with largely the same side), and were only beaten narrowly by eventual winners Spain.

Having said that, with a few exceptions I think it’s a fair assessment to say that player for player this Portugal side is weaker than others of the recent past. However, Paulo Bento has shown he can get the best out of every squad member and mould a cohesive team with an excellent spirit, which goes a long way to overcoming certain limitations. The mood among the fans is one of cautious optimism. Almost nobody thinks that Portugal can win the World Cup, but most expect them to match the positive showings of recent tournaments.

The dependence on Ronaldo is obvious, but the glaring lack of quality in attack is staggering. One would expect either of Postiga or Almeida to play up top, with Ronaldo wider & deeper where he can influence the play more. Neither of those two inspire confidence. What does Bento need to do to overcome this?

For all his critics Postiga has a more than decent scoring record for Portugal – 27 goals in 66 games – only five players have scored more than him for the national team. Nevertheless, I concede again it is a fair question as neither of the regular front two exactly strike fear into opposition defenders.

MORE READING | Tactics: Analysis of Portugal’s tactical approach, set-up & formation

Bento and Portugal fans will be pinning their hopes on other players contributing with goals at vital moments. Bruno Alves is Portugal’s all-time top scorer for a defender (9 goals), and his centre-back partner Pepe is also a big threat at set pieces. For any team to excel at the World Cup scoring a stack of goals is not necessarily a must. Vital strikes at the right times, like Varela’s crucial super-sub goal against Denmark at Euro 2012, are what you need. Should any of Postiga, Almeida or promising Braga striker Éder score 2 or 3 goals in Brazil it could be enough for Portugal to do something spectacular.

Speaking of Ronaldo, the Real man is in the prime of his career and with arguably the last chance to have a significant influence at the World Cup. He’ll certainly be hungry but his lack of performances at the big stage is a concern. How much of an influence can he be?

I can’t agree that he doesn’t perform on the big stage. He was the best young player at the 2006 World Cup. He didn’t do well at the 2010 World Cup but that was down to Carlos Queiroz’s tactics, who put all the emphasis on defence and left the attacking responsibility to Ronaldo, practically on his own. To exemplify, Ronaldo scored 3 goals in 18 matches under Queiroz, compared to 24 in 32 matches under Bento, who has succeeded in getting the very best out of him when in a Portugal shirt. The way he destroyed Holland at Euro 2012 and Sweden in the World Cup play‑off are just the most glaring examples of how Ronaldo has stepped up when it really matters for the side.

Provided he is 100% fit, everyone here in Portugal is dreaming of him “doing a Maradona” and propelling the country to do something extraordinary in Brazil. Given his drive, his ability and his current form, it may not be such an outlandish flight of fancy.

Where else can you see a significant impact, creatively, coming from besides the Ballon D’Or winner? Who else holds a key role in the Portuguese side?

Portugal’s most important player after Ronaldo is midfielder João Moutinho, precisely because of a lack of naturally creative players in the team. He’s had a disappointing season at Monaco by all accounts, but he always brings his A-game to the national team. The surprise inclusion of Braga winger/attacking midfielder Rafa in the squad is interesting, and he could hold the key to unlocking a defence in certain circumstances.

Group G seems to be a bit of a mini Group of Death with all four teams more than capable of holding their own. Besides the obvious threat of Germany, who else do you see posing a problem for the Portuguese side? Is Bento capable of devising a plan to see off the threat of the other two dark horses?

It’s a tough group no two ways about it. As well as containing Germany, who are one of the favourites to win it all, all the other three teams have legitimate aspirations to progress to the knockout phase. Portugal tend to excel in these situations. They were placed in the so-called ‘group of death’ at Euro 2000, the 2010 World Cup and at Euro 2012. On each occasion most pundits wrote off their chances of qualifying from the group, but they did so every time and in the two Euros came within a whisker of making the final. I’m confident Bento will know how to play it.

2014 FIFA World Cup Group G

We at Outside of the Boot track the progress of youngsters under our Talent Radar feature. Goes without saying that William Carvalho is the main focus of our feature. What impact do you see him having on the side? Tactically what is his role?

First of all he has to be selected, which is by no means a certainty given that the midfield trio of Veloso, Meireles and Moutinho has been set in stone since Paulo Bento became Portugal coach. However, the critics are sure to come down on Bento like a tonne of bricks if he does not pick William, who was the best player in Portugal this season. The coach is very unlikely to meddle with his tried and trusted 4-3-3 formation, so the obvious switch would be to bring him in as a straight replacement for the more defensive of the midfield trio, Miguel Veloso. But Bento may be tempted to play William alongside Veloso as a double defensive shield in front of the defence, with Moutinho given the attacking responsibilities further up the pitch, especially against Germany.

Portugal have fallen short to their Iberian neighbours in the last two big tournaments, who’ve gone on to win. Do the Portuguese sometimes not get the credit they are due? What would be considered a success and where do you see them finishing?

What Portugal has achieved over the past decade and a half (not missing a single tournament, reaching 3 semi-finals and 1 final) is truly remarkable given the size of the country and its population, and I think it has now, at long last, earned the respect it deserves as a football nation in the international press. I expect Portugal to reach the quarter-finals where Argentina will probably be a step too far. 

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