World Cup 2018 team preview: Portugal has questions beyond Cristiano Ronaldo

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. First up in Group B is Portugal.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and return as all 32 team previews and eight group previews roll in.

Outlook

Odds to win Group B: 35.1%
Odds to advance: 84.6%
Odds to win World Cup: 3.8%
Elo rank: 6
Yahoo Sports power rank: 7

Our writers say: Cristiano Ronaldo is the headliner, the catalyst and the focal point. He’s also a convenient distraction from Portugal’s many problems – namely, an aging defense that restricts the Portuguese stylistically. They ground their way to a European title two summers ago, but will need double the good fortune to repeat the feat on the global stage. Henry Bushnell

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal are the defending European champions. Can they repeat the feat at the World Cup? (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 7th
Best World Cup finish: 3rd place (1966)
2014 finish: Group stage (1-1-1)
Qualifying: Topped UEFA Group B ahead of Switzerland
Schedule: Spain (Friday, June 15, 2 p.m., Fox), Morocco (Wednesday, June 20, 8 a.m., FS1), Iran (Monday, June 25, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

Squad

Manager: Fernando Santos
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo (F)
Top players: Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva (M)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: There’s a decent amount of high- to mid-tier talent in the squad. But all rivers flow to Ronaldo. He is simply sensational, and the centerpiece for all that Portugal does going forward. His presence renders dominance or control of a game unnecessary, because one moment of brilliance can turn it on its head. That allows Santos to program his team in a relatively defensive posture – the chief reason it conceded just one knockout-round goal en route to a Euro 2016 title, and just four throughout qualifying.

Why they’ll lose games: There are growing concerns about the back four that achieved that defensive success, though. The contenders to start at center back are now 34, 35 and 36 years old. The only prospect who has emerged, Ruben Dias, just turned 21 and probably isn’t ready. Portugal, therefore, has to play cautiously to protect them. And that’s a problem, especially against lesser foes. Portugal isn’t good at picking minnows apart. Bernardo Silva is too constrained by the system. Other talented attackers don’t even have places in the starting 11. Santos’ cautious approach worked two summers ago, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work this time around.

How they’ll play: With one holding midfielder, three central-ish midfielders ahead of him, and two up top … but with a strange lack of dynamism. The attack is very cross-heavy, in part because it is so dependent on Ronaldo, but also in part because there is an unwillingness to try other avenues. Portugal will rarely press ferociously high up the field; it won’t overload central attacking areas and pull defenders out of position. It will play at a relatively slow pace, and won’t be particularly entertaining, unless the ball is at Ronaldo’s feet.

Projected lineup (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio; Cedric, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Raphael Guerreiro; William Carvalho; Joao Mario, Joao Moutinho, Bernardo Silva; Cristiano Ronaldo, Andre Silva.

The two spots up for grabs, it would seem, are Alves’ and Moutinho’s. Dias or Jose Fonte could start ahead of the 36-year-old Alves. Adrien Silva would be the top option to replace Moutinho. Goncalo Guedes is a wild card, and is certainly one of Portugal’s 11 best players, but doesn’t seem to have a place in Santos’ setup.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: They have arguably the second-best player of all time.

Why to root for them: Because you appreciate Ronaldo’s greatness.

Why to root against them: Because you despise Ronaldo and his arrogant perfection.

If you’re going to watch one game … You can’t miss the showdown with Spain. But the other two should be intriguing as well.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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