Defensive uncertainties could hinder Portugal’s World Cup hopes

Russia's Yury Zhirkov, right, challenges Portugal's Pepe during the Confederations Cup, Group A soccer match between Russia and Portugal, at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Many narratives were pedalled following Portugal’s Euro 2016 victory. They were regarded as a defensive side, and in some cases, a boring one.

In fairness to Portugal, the knockout stage of a major international tournament can be quite conservative, so being compact defensively is imperative.

Boasting midfielders who are comfortable on the ball while under pressure in their half is crucial as well. Adrien Silva, William Carvalho, Danilo, Joao Mario, Joao Moutinho and Andre Gomes were all silky smooth in possession. Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma were lethal threats on the counter, so manager Fernando Santos’s system was executed perfectly.

The form of those players entering the tournament was vital, too. Pepe and Ronaldo had just won the Champions League, goalkeeper Rui Patricio, Carvalho and Danilo were regular starters with Sporting CP and Porto. Jose Fonte and Bruno Alves were sensational entering the Euros. Andre Gomes, Renato Sanches and Joao Mario were hailed as a few of the next great Portuguese talents.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and will have in-depth daily coverage.

Two years later, this isn’t the case. Ronaldo aside, most of Portugal’s projected starters have fitness concerns or are in poor form entering the World Cup. This is especially true for the defence.

Pepe, arguably Portugal’s most consistent player throughout Euro 2016, was tremendous with Besiktas this past season. His leadership qualities and winning mentality are well-known, but even in his mid-30s, he contained forwards such as Timo Werner, Radamel Falcao, Vincent Aboubakar and Moussa Marega. Each of those strikers finished their respective campaigns with at least 20 goals in all competitions.

However, Pepe had a fractured his toe and a hamstring injury over the past three months. He only played four games from Feb. 20 to the end of the season. The 35-year-old hadn’t seen the pitch for four weeks until he started versus Tunisia in a pre-World Cup friendly on May 28.

Raphael Guerreiro has been even more frustrated by injuries with Borussia Dortmund. At 22, Guerreiro started at left-back in all but two of Portugal’s matches at Euro 2016 but is clearly unfit. He played just three matches for Dortmund in 2018 due to ankle and niggling muscle problems.

Jose Fonte’s overall form has drastically declined since moving from Southampton to West Ham United. He’s more error prone and constantly caught out of position. Meanwhile, Bruno Alves has spent more time on the treatment table with Rangers than on the field.

Then there is Patricio, who has experienced a hectic six weeks. It began after losing at Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the Europa League quarterfinals. Sporting president Bruno de Carvalho ripped the players on social media and even suspended them until reneging shortly thereafter. Then, just five days before the Portuguese Cup final, about 50 masked fans broke into the training ground and attacked the players. Patricio has since requested his contract to be terminated.

With all of these events transpiring right before the World Cup, the always reliable goalkeeper might not be in the right state of mind.

It’s pretty gloom for the Portuguese defence, although there are some potential solutions. Twenty-one-year-old Benfica defender Ruben Dias is tipped to start next to Pepe at centre-back. Dias was very impressive for Benfica against Sporting and Porto, as well as the 1-0 loss to Manchester United at Estadio da Luz in the Champions League. What really stood out was his poise on the ball and his anticipation when tracking an opposing forward. That was also evident in the 2-2 draw with Tunisia on May 28.

Dias replaced club legend Luisao in the lineup, so he’s had to deal with the pressures of playing for one of Portugal’s big teams, and in place of an idol, no less. He’s looked comfortable in marquee matches despite his relative inexperience, but Spain’s and Morocco’s dynamic attacks will be his toughest tasks to date.

Fresh off a fantastic season with Porto, right-back Ricardo Pereira impressed against Tunisia and recently joined Leicester City. The 24-year-old could start, although Santos has favoured Cedric in the past for his defensive qualities.

There’s no doubting that having a fit Pepe and Guerreiro, plus a mentally sharp Patricio, is crucial for Portugal. Spain will be its first opponent on June 15, which is quite symbolic. The defending European champions lost 4-0 to another superpower in Germany, with Pepe getting sent off, and eventually crashed out in the group stage.

The performance of Portugal’s defence against the Spanish will determine the team’s outlook for the tournament. The stingier the back line, the stronger the odds are for mounting a deep run.

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