Portugal is currently ranked seventh in the FIFA rankings. It has reached the semifinal of four major tournaments this century, and was a semifinalist at last year's Euro 2012, losing on penalties to eventual champion Spain. It is, of course, the team of Cristiano Ronaldo. And yet, it is in serious danger of failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Despite taking the lead after two minutes in Friday's away game against Israel, Portugal needed two goals in the last 20 minutes just to settle for a draw. Thanks to Helder Postiga in the 72nd minute, and Fabio Coentrao in stoppage time, manager Paulo Bento's squad was able to tie it up for a 3-3 final score. But after five matches played for each, Israel now stands above Portugal in the group, while Russia, who has played one less game after its away match to Northern Ireland was postponed due to snow, stands in first place, four points ahead.
"The goal after two minutes should have buoyed us, but instead it did the opposite," said Portugal coach Paulo Bento. "We let our intensity drop and we didn't defend decisively enough. We weren't effective enough with the chances we had."
And so, Portugal's match against Azerbaijan on Tuesday has suddenly taken on critical significance for Ronaldo's team. Finishing second in the group has become a familiar path for Portugal, who qualified for both Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup by beating Bosnia in the playoffs. But now Portugal is at the risk of finishing third and missing out on the playoffs -- and the World Cup -- entirely.
The criticism of Portugal recently has been that it is over-reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo -- although the question is always whether that's him imposing himself on the team, insisting on being the central figure, or others abnegating responsibility and effectively letting Ronaldo do the bulk of the work. Nobody would ever suggest dropping Ronaldo, but it will be revealing how Portugal fare on Tuesday when he is unavailable because of suspension, having been booked for kicking the ball away after the whistle had gone off -- an indication of Portugal's frustration.
Friday's match was a typical example of Portugal at its worst: complacent and lackadaisical, only really getting going when it was already two goals down. But the Portuguese have a good chance to show what they're like at their best and pick up three points against winless Azerbaijan, who, under the management of Berti Vogts, sit in second-to-last place in Group F.
Portugal is not the only giant at risk of having to go through the playoffs. Top-ranked Spain was already under pressure after drawing its home game against France in October, and that pressure was only increased by its home draw against Finland on Friday. The French now lead Group I after a 3-1 victory over Georgia, and could find themselves five points ahead at the top of the group with a victory over the world and European champions in Paris on Tuesday.
"It seems impossible that we drew after dictating both halves of the game," said Spain's coach Vicente del Bosque. "We were organized, but everything went out of control in the end. We could have been more successful in front of goal, but we lacked the ability to add a second goal. Finland locked up their defense well, and made the unthinkable happen."
That is a risk, though, of Spain's style of play. It looks to control games, and so it dominates for much of the 90 minutes, but against sides that aim to do nothing but defend all game, Spain finds its domination does not always convert to wins. That was evident in the defeat to Switzerland during the group stage of the last World Cup, in the friendly defeat to England in 2011 and in numerous other friendlies before this slip-up against Finland.
In a strange way, playing France may suit Spain better than facing a lesser power like Finland, which sat men behind the ball, held Spain at arm's length and in the end only conceded one goal, a header by Sergio Ramos off a corner kick. France will be more aggressive and that will render it vulnerable to counter-attacks, although with Fernando Torres still in poor form, Spain continues to lack a truly incisive forward. David Villa is still climbing his way back to top shape , Fernando Llorente never really got going this season after he ended last year seemingly exhausted and Álvaro Negredo missed two late chances against Finland.
An 8-0 win over San Marino -- England's largest victory since 1987 -- is always good for morale, particularly coming after a friendly victory over Brazil, but it will mean little in Podgorica on Tuesday, as manager Roy Hodgson readily admitted.
"It would be a great lift to win on Tuesday, but if we don't get it I won't be getting the spade out to dig a grave for the team," said Hodgson. "There are 15 points to play for and the team is capable of getting a large number of those points to see us through. Beating Brazil gave us confidence and most people will look at the football we played tonight and revel in the fact there were exceptional moves and goals in there."
Montenegro themselves beat Moldova 1-0 -- an opponent England beat 5-0 back in September -- but Montenegro achieved it with 10 men, Mirko Vucinic scoring 16 minutes after Milorad Pekovic had been sent off. England hasn't beaten Montenegro in either of their two previous meetings and is desperately short of central defenders, with no Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Phil Jones or Rio Ferdinand.
It's a strange group, with the four major teams taking points off of each other, which should mean that England's draws at home to Ukraine and away to Poland shouldn't be too problematic -- unless it loses in Podgorica. That would give Montenegro a five-point lead in the group and, while that wouldn't be insurmountable, it would place huge pressure on England for the game against Montenegro at Wembley in October.