When Portugal was first drawn into the Group of Death for the World Cup in Brazil, manager Paulo Bento immediately knew that everything would need to go right for his team to advance to the knockout phase.
Now, only one week away from opening the tournament against group favourites Germany, everyone in the small Iberian nation waits on the injury status of their captain and reigning Ballon d’Or winner.
Cristiano Ronaldo took part in his first full training session with the national team this past weekend, but just how close the Real Madrid forward is to completely recovering from a muscle injury and patellar tendinosis in his left leg remains uncertain. While much of Portugal’s hopes are hanging on Ronaldo’s ability to carry the offensive load, the truth is there’s more to this squad than just the man in the No. 7 shirt. A fully fit Ronaldo may very well determine the potency of Portugal’s attack in Brazil, but much of the team’s success will depend on the strength of play from its central midfield and ability to counter-attack.
The most important player in that equation is João Moutinho. While the 27-year old had a relatively quiet first season with Monaco in Ligue 1, Moutinho remains a key cog in the Portuguese attack. The diminutive midfielder—along with Raul Meireles—plays atop the inverted triangle in the centre of Portugal’s 4-3-3 formation, and serves as the main creative link in the attacking half of the field. He is to Portugal what Xavi is to Spain.
It’s a role that Moutinho has thrived in with the national team, putting in impressive displays at Euro 2012 that then carried over into qualification for this World Cup. Along with goalkeeper Rui Patricio, Moutinho played every minute of Portugal’s qualifying campaign (12 matches) and led all European players with nine assists, including a pair of sublime through-balls to set up two of Ronaldo’s four goals in the playoff against Sweden last November.
Moutinho has shown that he is as creative as he is efficient. One of his brightest moments in qualifying came in a 3-0 victory over Luxembourg, a match that the Seleção das Quinas played without Ronaldo. Granted, it was against Luxembourg, but Moutinho’s vision and creativity were on full display, highlighted by the buildup on Portugal’s second goal. The former FC Porto man used three one-touch passes, the final one being a deft back-heel to goal-scorer Nani, to completely unlock the opposing defence.
Exactly who lines up alongside Moutinho in the middle is still up for debate. Bento has rarely been adventurous with his tactical approach or team selection; his starting XI against Germany could very well be the same squad that lined up against Spain in the dramatic semifinal shootout loss at Euro 2012. However, the one change Bento might not be able to avoid in Brazil is introducing William Carvalho into his regular lineup. The 22-year-old defensive midfielder from Sporting CP made his national team debut as a second-half substitute in the deciding leg of Portugal’s playoff tie against Sweden. When a pair of Zlatan Ibrahimović goals threatened Portugal’s prospects of booking a ticket to Brazil, Bento introduced Carvalho into the game and his poise in front of the backline was instrumental in stopping Sweden’s momentum.
The top player in the Portuguese league this past season, Carvalho has shown incredible composure and the early comparisons to former French midfielder Patrick Vieira are justified. His ability to read the play and put in the timely tackle is impressive for someone his age, and he’s surprisingly calm with the ball at his feet. He still needs to improve his proficiency in pushing the ball forward, so inserting Carvalho in place of Meireles might be sacrificing too much on the offensive side of the ball. However, playing him alongside Miguel Veloso could be the defensive approach Portugal needs late in matches, or from the opening whistle against an opponent as strong as Germany. Otherwise, Carvalho could step in for Veloso, who has been a steady presence for the national team, but rarely sees top-flight football with his club, Dynamo Kyiv.
Regardless of who he might replace in the starting XI, Carvalho could be a wildcard for Portugal this summer. And playing alongside any of the three Portuguese veterans in the central midfield should give the Seleção a nucleus that can match up against the world’s top sides. Even if Ronaldo can get to full fitness before opening kickoff, that defensive stability and build-up from the central midfield could be the difference between another tournament run for the Portuguese, or an early trip back from Brazil.