Group B: Can European champions Portugal conquer the world?
Cristiano Ronaldo remains the main man but keep an eye on Rúben Neves in Russia
Cristiano Ronaldo will be featuring in his fourth World Cup this summer. Photograph: Robert Hradil/Getty
Who are they?
Not many people will fancy the champions of Europe to repeat the trick on the world stage this summer – but then again, nobody gave them much hope of winning the European Championships two years ago. Portugal’s victory in France was built on a tremendous team spirit – while a number of their senior pros had the month of their international careers. Cristiano Ronaldo remains the side’s talisman at 33 and he has enjoyed another fine season, inspiring Real Madrid to a third straight Champions League title. He will be ably supported in Russia by Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva, while Ruben Neves has the makings of a world-class central midfielder.
The defence however is creaking – Pepe is now 35, while 34-year-old Jose Fonte is playing in China. Yet, while there are far better squads at this summer’s tournament, there will be few sides with the unity of the Portugese. Fernando Santos has made them very difficult to beat, and victory at the Euros has given them the winning mentality to add to their newly found steel. Providing Ronaldo stays fit – he was memorably forced off during the Euro 2016 final – they will fancy their chances against anyone.
World Cup moment
Both of Portugal’s semi-final appearances have come on European soil. Eusebio inspired a run to the last four in 1966, where they were beaten 2-1 by hosts and eventual winners England. They had a mammoth run in Germany in 2006, beating the Netherlands and then England on penalties – remember Ronaldo’s wink – before losing 1-0 to Zinedine Zidane and France in the semis.
How did they get here?
Portugal were beaten by Switzerland in their opening qualification fixture with Ronaldo absent through injury, but went on to win their remaining nine games – scoring 32 times and conceding just twice – on their way to top spot in Group B.
Fernando Santos took over in September 2014 and since then there has been a solitary defeat in 24 competitive fixtures. The 63-year-old has nurtured a winning team and culture, and guided Portugal to their maiden major international title.
The main man
Cristiano Ronaldo comfortably remains one of the world’s two best players at 33. The transformation from powerful winger into unstoppable centre forward is now complete, and if he gets the right service Portugal will score the goals to match anybody. He’s also the best big-game player on the planet.
The one to watch
Producing out-and-out strikers has often been an issue for Portugal - Nuno Gomes and Helder Postiga picked up 79 and 71 caps respectively - but this has become less of an issue thanks to the incredible goalscoring exploits on Ronaldo. However, the emergence of André Silva - currently at AC Milan - will be a boost for Santos, who now has another option at centre forward. Silva struggled in his first season in Serie A but a return of 12 goals in 23 international appearances hints at his potential.
If they finish behind Spain in Group A, one of Russia, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and Egypt wait in the last-16. France are likely quarter-final opponents – the semi-finals are a realistic prospect.
Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Beto (Goztepe), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon).
Defenders: Bruno Alves (Rangers), Cedric Soares (Southampton), Jose Fonte (Dalian Yifang), Mario Rui (Napoli), Pepe (Besiktas), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Ricardo Pereira (Porto), Ruben Dias (Benfica).