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Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo and a new 'Golden Generation'

Portugal reached the semi-finals on the two occasions they participated in World Cups staged in Europe and go into the tournament in confident mood on the back of their historic Euro 2016 triumph.

With the country’s greatest ever player, Cristiano Ronaldo, still at the very top of his game, supported by a crop of exciting young talents and a coach who has the full backing of the players, the press and the fans, the Selecao look well set, albeit with defensive concerns.

Central defence could prove problematic, with the likely first-choice partnership of Pepe and Bruno Alves having a combined age of 71 years.

Another worry for Portugal is the poor form or lack of fitness of the young stars that helped sweep the country to European Championship glory. Raphael Guerreiro, Joao Mario and Renato Sanches all made important contributions in France and were expected to only improve as they acquired more experience.

However, Guerreiro has had terrible luck with injuries, Mario has regressed, and Sanches has completely fallen off the radar.

Nevertheless, the emergence of Bruno Fernandes and Goncalo Guedes counter-balances this issue and the big picture suggests Portugal have the tools to cause a surprise for a second tournament running.

Portugal’s World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Lopes, Beto, Patricio

Defenders: Alves, Soares, Fonte, Rui, Pepe, Guerreiro, Pereira, Dias

Midfielders: Adrien Silva, B Fernandes, Mario, Moutinho, M Fernandes, W Carvalho

Forwards: Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva, C Ronaldo, Martins, Guedes, Quaresma

How did they qualify?

Fresh from being crowned European Champions, Portugal were brought down to earth with a bump when losing the first qualifying match 2-0 in Switzerland.

From them on, though, the Selecao were perfect, winning the remaining nine matches while scoring 32 goals and conceding only two, including a surprisingly straight-forward 2-0 victory in the decisive final match versus Switzerland in Lisbon to clinch qualification.

While it is true that apart from Switzerland the opposition was weak, Portugal reached Russia with a real swagger, the lethal partnership formed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Andre Silva – 24 goals between them – the highlight.

For years Portugal stuck to a 4-3-3 template, but Fernando Santos has mixed up the tactics, with 4-4-2 his go-to formation, especially since the emergence of Andre Silva to partner Ronaldo up front.

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However, The AC Milan striker’s dreadful debut season in Italy may force Santos into a rethink, especially given the abundance of viable options to play wide in a 4-3-3, such as Gelson Martins, Goncalo Guedes and Ricardo Quaresma.

That said, in Russia it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Santos revert to the conservative tactics used so successfully at Euro 2016, especially against strong opposition, when the wide midfielders in a 4-4-2 were instructed to stay narrow (the coach even selected four central midfielders on occasions), with the width provided by the overlapping full-backs and/or one of the front two drifting to the flanks. If this system is adopted, Guedes may get the nod ahead of Silva up front.

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Key men

Talisman Ronaldo remains central to Portugal’s hopes of going deep in the tournament, although, as shown the Euro 2016 final, the Selecao are not as wholly reliant on their captain as in the past.

The fitness and form of experienced campaigners Rui Patricio in goal and centre-back Pepe will be crucial to provide a solid base, but it is contributions from the extravagantly gifted Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes that could make the difference between Portugal having a decent tournament or a spectacular one.

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One to watch - Bruno Fernandes

The 23-year-old Sporting midfielder has been a revelation since arriving at the Lisbon club from Sampdoria last summer.

By the end of February, he had contributed 13 goals and seven assists in 41 matches, many of those goals stunning long-range shots, with Fernandes seemingly intent on compiling his personal portfolio of goal-of-the-season contenders.

In addition to his potent goal threat and exceptional touch in tight spaces, his willingness to defend assiduously and indefatigable energy levels marks Fernandes out as a very special talent.

The lack of cover in central defence is the big concern, though. Pepe can still be relied upon at the heart of defence, and for Portugal to prosper in Russia it is crucial the Besiktas veteran is fit.

He will likely be partnered by one of fellow veterans Bruno Alves or Jose Fonte, which is not ideal considering they play their club football in Scotland and China respectively. Benfica youngster Ruben Dias, Paulo Oliveira (Eibar) or Edgar Ie (Lille) are the most viable alternatives, but all are untested at this level.

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The manager

Such have been the accolades and honours bestowed on Fernando Santos since guiding Portugal to their first ever major trophy that it is easy to forget his appointment to the post in September 2014 was met with much scepticism.

It was clear that his predecessor Paulo Bento’s time had run its course, but the feeling was the Portuguese Football Federation had turned to Santos because of a lack of alternatives rather than his suitability for the role. A single championship title at FC Porto and a solid spell as Greece manager were the standout achievements in a 30-year career.

Yet in four years Santos has arguably carved himself a niche as the greatest ever Portugal manager. In addition to 16 victories in 17 European Championship and World Cup qualifying matches, with the small matter of the conquest of the Euro 2016 trophy in between, the wily 63-year-old has cleverly overseen the renovation of the national team, steadily introducing several of Portugal’s new ‘Golden Generation’ into the team to great effect, such as Joao Mario, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva.

With a contract until 2020, the immediate destiny of the Selecao is in good hands.

World Cup 2018: The top 10 contenders

Potential route to final

When Portugal were drawn against Spain there was a collective intake of breath all around the country, but with Iran and Morocco making up Group B, the consensus is that it was not a bad draw.

Firstly, because should the favourites Portugal and Spain progress, the Selecao cannot meet their Iberian neighbours again until the final.

Secondly, because the match-up with Group A looks favourable, with a probable last-16 meeting against Russia, Uruguay or Egypt. From then on it gets a whole lot more complicated, with the most likely quarter-final and semi-final opponents France and Brazil respectively.

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Expert opinion

Pedro Cunha - leading journalist at Portugal’s biggest football website: Maisfutebol

“Winning the World Cup is not mission impossible. The Portuguese national side is a team that knows what it wants and it has a solid structure. The squad is full of good options for all areas, with one exception.

"The biggest challenge – and a problem – facing Fernando Santos is how to quickly find a solution in central defence to succeed Pepe, Bruno Alves and Jose Fonte, all of whom are reaching the end of their respective careers.

"The rise of Benfica’s Ruben Dias may help to diminish the age issue at the heart of Portugal’s defence. The 20-year-old may well get the call for the World Cup, even if it is only as the fourth centre-back option.

"European Champions Portugal are not among the main favourites (Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany), but are in the group the next level down, and can beat any opponent on their day.

"Under Santos, Portugal dropped the flair football of the past, turning into a deadly serious competitive machine. A machine that is driven by the goals and leadership of Cristiano Ronaldo, the security given by goalkeeper Rui Patrício, the audacity of full-backs Raphael Guerreiro and Cedric, the intelligence of William and the selfless talent of Joao Moutinho and Joao Mario.

"Portugal World Champions? It’s far from being an impossibility.”

Odds

Portugal look a reasonable bet as an outsider, with William Hill listing them at 25/1 to lift the trophy* on 15 July in Moscow.

A more popular wager may be for Portugal to get the better of Spain on Day Two of the tournament, with the Selecao listed at 3/1 to win that match.*

As for their top Golden Boot contender, it's no surprise to see Cristiano Ronaldo on the market at 12/1.* If you are looking for value then striker Andre Silva could be a good shout.

The 22-year-old AC Milan forward has 11 goals in 20 international appearances and is priced at a generous 80/1.*

*Please note these odds are correct at time of publishing and could be subject to change.

**GiveMeSport brings you this article in collaboration with William Hill

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