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Portugal target Uruguay revenge as Group H favourites

Portugal’s hopes of challenging for a first World Cup title will likely be heavily dictated by how well they fare in an accessible group where their main rivals are Uruguay, the country that dumped them out in the last 16 four years ago.

The recent record for Portugal at the World Cup makes for sorry reading, with just a combined three wins in three appearances since reaching the semi-finals in 2006.

And while they boast international football‘s record goalscorer in Cristiano Ronaldo, questions abound as to whether the 37-year-old should still be the team’s primary option in attack.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has started on the bench more often than not for Manchester United this season, and has yet to score in the knockout phase at a World Cup.

Ronaldo and coach Fernando Santos were criticised after Portugal missed out on a place in the Nations League finals following a home loss to neighbours Spain in September.

With a wealth of talent and Ronaldo leading the way for almost two decades now, Portugal belong among the world’s best teams but have a reputation as underachievers despite winning Euro 2016 and the Nations League three years later.

“We definitely are a generation with a lot of talent, but other teams have talent, too,” Manchester City defender Ruben Dias told the FIFA website.

“You can have the best players in the competition, but if you don’t know how to make the most of the strengths of each player, then you won’t be able to operate properly as a team. People will see you as just another ordinary team.”

Beaten by a Zinedine Zidane penalty in the last four of the 2006 World Cup, Portugal have not gone beyond the last 16 since. They risk facing Brazil at that stage in Qatar if they fail to top Group H above Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana. 

Uruguay, world champions in 1930 and 1950, turned to Diego Alonso to rescue their faltering qualifying campaign after parting with the long-serving Oscar Tabarez, and sealed their spot at a fourth consecutive finals with four straight wins.

Uruguay’s old guard

They will rely on a blend of youth and experience. The 36-year-old Diego Godin is captain of a side that also includes Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, all of whom were part of Uruguay’s run to the 2010 semi-finals —- their best performance since coming fourth in 1970.

Fede Valverde, who has been in outstanding form this season for Real Madrid, and Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez are among the new faces set for their World Cup bow.

“We have a mix of experienced players and quality. I think Uruguay can have a great World Cup,” said Suarez, whose 2014 tournament ended early after a four-month ban for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini.

Uruguay overcame South Korea and Ghana to reach the last four in South Africa, where Suarez’s infamous handball at the end of extra time prevented the Black Stars from becoming the first African nation to make the semi-finals.

Ghana’s chances of emulating that performance 12 years on look remote. Sitting 61st, Otto Addo’s side are the lowest ranked of the 32 teams present in Qatar.

German-born Addo, who juggles his role as Ghana coach with his job at Borussia Dortmund, has turned to members of the diaspora to bolster a squad that failed to get past the Africa Cup of Nations group stage in January.

Athletic Bilbao striker Inaki Williams, capped once by Spain in 2016, and former England Under-21 international Tariq Lamptey of Brighton have switched allegiances.

South Korea will play at their 10th World Cup in a row, but an injury to captain and talisman Son Heung-min threatens to ruin their campaign.

The Tottenham Hotspur forward fractured his eye socket last week and faces a race against time to be fit after undergoing surgery.

Son shared last season’s Premier League golden boot with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.

“We think it’s not the time to talk about Son’s status for the World Cup. We are not saying it’s impossible, we are just saying now is not the time to discuss,” a Korea Football Association (KFA) official told AFP.

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