By Gabriele Marcotti, SI.com
Portugal will lean heavily on its superstar Cristiano Ronaldo for goals.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Through May, SI.com will profile World Cup teams weekly. We continue with Portugal. Click here for the full archive.
Portugal may feature the most expensive player in the world up front, but, unlike years past, it's actually pretty solid at the back. Goalkeeper Eduardo, ignored at national team level until a year ago, had a stellar season at Braga and there is plenty of experience in a back four led by the charismatic Bruno Alves and the fleet-footed Ricardo Carvalho.
Portugal would look even better if Chelsea's Jose Bosingwa wasn't out through injury, but Miguel is a competent, if somewhat inconsistent alternative. However, there is plenty of defensive steel in the middle of the park as well. Raul Meireles may not always be pretty to watch, but he's one of the hardest working midfielders in the game and, alongside him, Carlos Queiroz is likely to rely on Pepe, an athletic freak of nature who normally plays in central defense forReal Madrid. The long-limbed Pepe covers plenty of ground and forms a natural shield in front of the back four. The only question mark is his fitness: he's racing against the clock to be fit in time for South Africa.
As ever, Portugal is long on wingers, so much so that one of them, Ronaldo, will be playing up front. Out wide we'll see Nani, who enjoyed a strong finish to the season at Manchester United after a nightmare start and the tricky veteran Simao Sabrosa. Liedson, a naturalized Brazilian, gives Portugal something it hasn't had since the days of Fernando Gomes in the 1980s: a genuine goal-scoring threat.
What to watch for
Portugal took the long way round to South Africa, coming close to elimination in qualifying (imagine a World Cup without Ronaldo, marketing men everywhere were holding their breath), largely because of an inability to convert chances. NaturalizingLiedson in August 2009 helped address some of those problems, but this remains a team short on cutting edge -- unless, of course, Ronaldo decides to carry the team on his back offensively, something he's more than capable of doing.
In fact, that may be coach Carlos Queiroz's game plan: keep it tight at the back and wait for Ronaldo to produce. It may not be for the purists, but it can be effective. Which is why ruling out Portugal as a potential dark horse would be foolish at thisstage.
This is a tough group, with the serious risk of starting in the worst possible way, with a defeat against Ivory Coast. On the other hand, if Queiroz navigates the Elephants' threat successfully and reaches the knockout stage, Portugal could turn heads, providedRonaldo catches fire.
Key match in group stage
June 15 vs Ivory Coast. The math here is real simple. North Korea should be a gimme and getting points off Brazil will be tough. Which means this the game against the Ivory Coast will be for all the marbles. For a preview of what this game might be like, you can always sneak into a Chelsa intra-squad scrimmage. Paulo Ferreira will be charged with shutting down Salomon Kalou's cutting runs from the wing and Carvalho will need to contain Didier Drogba's explosiveness.
Celebrity scouting report: Extreme's Nuno Bettencourt*
We struggled pretty badly in qualifying. It looked really bizarre. On paper, we've got guys who play for Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United -- you think, 'This is an all-star team!' Then when they play together, there's no chemistry. There's just too much individual play. You realize how much they miss a glue guy like Luis Figo. ... [Carlos] Queiroz has a bit of a weird vibe. You wonder if he's intimidating enough. He's always been a great No. 2 guy, but I have the feeling the team is finally starting to buy in. ... My theory is that Ronaldo getting hurt was the best thing for them. He's such a major presence that when he's on the field, the players feel pressure to get him the ball and make him happy. Once he went down, they had to pull together and it was almost like a release -- Simao, Deco and Nani all felt like they could play without the pressure of getting the ball to this enormous star. Similarly, I think this will help Ronaldo grow. We all know he's cocky and arrogant. But he saw they could band together and win without him. That can only help him get some perspective, and the team now sees it's now about balance, too.
*The guitarist for the Boston-based hard rock band was born in the Azores. His favorite club is Portuguese powerhouse Benfica. As told to SI.com.