Portugal head to Qatar with one of their most talent-laden teams ever, but have forfeited their chance at World Cup glory to fulfil Cristiano Ronaldo’s personal ambitions.
The Manchester United forward has developed a recent habit of heading home prematurely, but this is one instance where he will want to stick around till the Dec 18 final and seal his status (in his own mind at least) as the greatest of all time. In all likelihood, this is the 37-year-old’s last shot at the coveted trophy.
Ronaldo is the focal point around which this Portuguese side are built but the national icon’s powers have waned and the alternative options are bountiful.
Goncalo Ramos, who has nine goals and three assists in 11 appearances for Benfica this season and Atletico Madrid’s versatile forward Joao Felix are now superior attacking options.
The numbers don’t lie. Ronaldo has scored in just one of his last 10 matches for Portugal – a brace against Switzerland in a 4-0 victory in June. They were also his only international goals in 2022.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has also become a peripheral figure for United, scoring just three times in 16 matches this season.
It is telling that the only 90-minute appearance from the Portuguese peacock that has got people talking in recent times came during an incendiary interview with Piers Morgan.
But Ronaldo still has the backing of his teammates. Midfielder Bernardo Silva told Fifa’s website recently: “When you’ve got a player like Cristiano, it’s natural that sometimes you play for him because he can win you the game in the final minutes.
“The same goes for other countries. It’s natural, for example, that France always look to (Kylian) Mbappe... Brazil have Neymar and with Argentina, it’s Lionel Messi...
“I agree you can’t become overdependent on them as this can disrupt the team dynamics. But, if we get it right, having Cristiano in our team will be a powerful weapon.”
Ronaldo’s place in Portuguese football folklore is unimpeachable, having guided them to their maiden trophy at Euro 2016. So is his status in international football, his tally of 117 goals may never be surpassed.
But most of those achievements were recorded while he was still at his peak, a far cry from the output he is able to conjure these days. Still, he can clinch a new record by becoming the first player to score at five editions of the World Cup. He is currently one of only four players including Pele (Brazil), Uwe Seeler (West Germany), Miroslav Klose (Germany) to have scored in four editions of the Cup.
If Portugal are to achieve anything in Qatar, they must accept the reality of Ronaldo’s decline, even if their superstar doesn’t.
Ghana received a boost this year when Athletic Bilbao forward Inaki Williams, who was born in Spain and exciting Brighton full-back Tariq Lamptey, who was born in England, both declared their allegiance for the African nation ahead of the World Cup.
Williams’ inclusion will be key for Ghana, as he will be expected to get the goals for his country alongside the Ayew brothers – Jordan and Andre.
Lamptey, who is a Chelsea academy graduate, has been a revelation in the English Premier League at right-back since his debut for Brighton in 2020. England-born Antoine Semenyo of Bristol City is another notable addition.
However, despite the injection of talents, it is likely that Ghana will face another group-stage elimination. But the hope is that it will be an improvement from 2014 when they collected only one point from three games.
Sweating on Son
The South Koreans will be making their 10th consecutive appearance at the World Cup so they are far from pushovers at this stage. But how they fare will depend largely on their talismanic forward Son Heung-min.
The Tottenham Hotspur star fractured the orbital bone in his face during the first half of his side’s Champions League game against Marseille on Nov 1 but has been deemed healthy enough to go to Qatar despite the injury requiring surgery.
Son has been spotted training in a protective face mask ahead of the World Cup, raising hopes that the 30-year-old will be ready for the Taegeuk Warriors’ opener against Uruguay. Son, in a Zorro-style carbon mask, will certainly look the part if he is able to heroically inspire his side to the knockout phase.
A shock third on the cards?
It may surprise a fair few, but Uruguay are World Cup royalty.
In 1930, the country hosted and won the inaugural event, defeating Argentina in the final and 20 years later, La Celeste shocked Brazil in the final at the Maracana to win their second crown. But since the turn of the century, Uruguay has won only one major trophy, the 2011 Copa America.
On paper, the current squad have an outside chance of delivering a third title. The obvious big names are Edinson Cavani, Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez, who cost the Reds €75 million (S$106.7 million) plus €20 million in add-ons, and former Anfield fan favourite Luis Suarez.
Their attack is supplemented by an impressive midfield consisting of Real Madrid hotshot Federico Valverde,Tottenham’s midfield lynchpin Rodrigo Bentancur and playmaker Giorgian de Arrascaeta who has 13 goals and 20 assists in 56 matches for Brazilian side Flamengo in 2022. Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo and Atletico Madrid’s Jose Gimenez add steel to the backline.
Evidently, there is no shortage of star power but Uruguay will need to show that their display on the pitch matches the quality on paper.
History has shown that one should write the South Americans off at his own peril.
GROUP H FIXTURES
Uruguay v South Korea (Nov 24, 9pm)
Portugal v Ghana (Nov 24, 11.59pm)
South Korea v Ghana (Nov 28, 9pm)
Portugal v Uruguay (Nov 29, 3am)
Ghana v Uruguay (Dec 2, 11pm)
South Korea v Portugal (Dec 2, 11pm)
Last World Cup: Round of 16
Best result: Third (1966)
Fifa Ranking: 9
Record in qualifying: 7 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss
The coach: Fernando Santos
Portugal have won only two titles, the Euro 2016 and the 2019 Nations League. Both were delivered by Santos and yet the 68-year-old’s reputation in his native country is less than stellar.
Most fans have been critical of Santos’ overly structured approach given all the attacking riches at his disposal and needing the play-offs to qualify for Qatar has not helped the matter. In the job since 2014, a disappointing campaign at the World Cup will spell the end for him.
The star: Bruno Fernandes
Often in the shadow of his illustrious teammate for club and country, Bruno Fernandes will look to show his own importance at this World Cup. In Ronaldo’s absence, Fernandes scored twice in the first half as Portugal crushed Nigeria 4-0 in a World Cup warm-up in Lisbon on Thursday.
Fernandes will be the chief architect in Portugal’s midfield and his versatility also means that he can be relied on to bring creativity to his side’s attack from the wings as well.
The 28-year-old has also shown that he can step up when it matters. Fernandes scored twice in a 2-0 win against North Macedonia in a playoff match in March to seal his side’s place at the World Cup finals in Qatar.
Last World Cup: Did not qualify
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals (2010)
Fifa Ranking: 61
Record in qualifying: 4 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss
The coach: Otto Addo
Former Ghanaian international Addo was initially appointed as the team’s interim coach but after guiding his country past the two-legged play-off against Nigeria and qualifying for Qatar, he was given the role permanently.
After serving as an assistant coach and as a scout earlier in his career, this is the 47-year-old’s first head coach role. But Addo has invaluable experience and knowledge to lean on. Ex-Newcastle and Brighton manager Chris Hughton is part of the Black Stars’ set up as technical adviser.
The star: Thomas Partey
The most recognisable name in the Ghanian squad, the Arsenal midfielder is arguably the only one in this Ghana side of genuine world-class quality. He has enjoyed a superb start to the season with his club and will want to transfer that form to the world stage.
The 29-year-old is a ball winner who also has the technical capability to dictate the pace of the game. This season, he has also shown that is capable of scoring piledrivers, as seen from his strikes against Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest. Ghana will be hoping he is able to pull out a similar scorcher in Qatar.
Last World Cup: Group stage
Best World Cup performance: Fourth (2002)
Fifa Ranking: 28
Record in qualifying: 12 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss
The coach: Paulo Bento
Given the general lack of success he has had with the South Korean national team since taking charge in 2018, it may surprise people that Bento is the longest-serving head coach in the history of the national team.
Bento is no stranger to the World Cup as a coach having led his country Portugal at the 2014 edition although his team failed to make it past the group stages. A reunion with Portugal awaits in Qatar and any positive result in that clash could strengthen Bento’s case for an extension as the Taegeuk Warriors’ chief tactician.
The star: Son Heung-min
It’s hard to argue against the fact that Son is the best Asian footballer. The 30-year-old has the ability to be a matchwinner against just about anyone.
But his current form is questionable. Last season’s Premier League Golden Boot winner with 23 goals in 35 matches, Son’s form has dipped and he has just five goals in 19 appearances in the current campaign.
If he is fit and raring to go, Son will be eyeing a personal achievement as well. He is currently tied with Park Ji-sung for the most goals scored by a South Korean in a World Cup.
Last World Cup: Quarter-finals
Best World Cup performance: Champions (1930, 1950)
Fifa Ranking: 14
Record in qualifying: 8 wins, 4 draws, 6 losses
The coach : Diego Alonso
For the first time in four editions of the World Cup, Uruguay will be led by a new man – 47-year-old Alonso who has a wealth of experience at club level having coached Penarol and Bella Vista in his native Uruguay, Paraguayan sides Olimpia and Guaran, Inter Miami in America and Mexican side Pachuca.
Oscar Tabarez, who had been in the job for 15 years, was sacked after a string of poor results that left the two-time World Cup winners seventh in South America’s qualifying group. Alonso took charge in December and led Uruguay to four straight wins which lifted them to third in the group to qualify for Qatar 2022.
The star: Federico Valverde
The 24-year-old will be making his World Cup debut in Qatar having narrowly missed out on selection at the last edition in Russia.
Despite his age, Valverde has already made 44 appearances for Uruguay, scoring four goals, and featured more than 150 times across five seasons with Real Madrid, scoring 14 times.
These days he is one of the first few names on the Madrid team sheet which shows his importance for one of the biggest clubs in the world. With a star showing in Qatar, he can firmly announce himself to the world.