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Led By Ronaldo, Portugal Enter As World Cup Dark Horses

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Can Ronaldo carry his club form into international play to lift Portugal to World Cup glory?  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Can Ronaldo carry his club form into international play to lift Portugal to World Cup glory? (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
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What if you entered the World Cup having only given up 2 goals in its last 10 competitive matches and not one in the last 6 games.  What if you also had a former FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or winner that had just notched 33 goals in 34 games playing in one of Europe's top leagues?  Most would feel pretty good about their chances of at least competing against the world's best on the biggest stage starting on June 11 in South Africa, but Portugal is very much under the radar entering the World Cup.  

It's easy from listening to all the talk preceding this week's kickoff that only Spain, Brazil and England have a real chance of winning the World Cup.  Well the favorite very rarely advances and a lot of times actually ends up exiting the tournament much earlier than expected, while underachieving dark horses have come through in recent memory. Look no further than Portugal if you want a value pick with top quality and depth.

In 2002, Argentina the favorite didn't make it out of their group finishing behind both England and Sweden.  Brazil ended up winning that year after a very lackluster qualifying campaign.  

In 2006 on the heels of their triumph four year earlier, a roster loaded with attacking talent and Ronaldinho's emergence as the best player in the world Brazil were huge favorites.  They ended up looking sluggish throughout and were knocked out by France in the quarterfinals.  Italy were given little chance after Serie A clubs like Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale were hit with allegations of corruption and many Italians were rooting against their countrymen.  They ended up defeating an aging French side in the World Cup Final on penalties no less.

If there's anything that is apparent when watching international play is how unpredictable it can be especially when the elimination rounds begin.  Being a favorite guarantees little when you have to get through the group stage and then win four games to capture the World Cup.  

Enter Portugal.  

This is a team that struggled through the early parts of it's qualifying campaign until finally hitting their stride to earn a spot in one of Europe's qualifying two-leg playoffs to garner a spot in the field of 32.  Portugal advanced past Bosnia, winning 2-0 on aggregate to book their spot in South Africa.  

So why do so many questions surround this team?  Well clearly their struggle to simply qualify is part of it.  A team with players like RonaldoSimaoNaniDecoLiedsonPepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Bruno Alves and Paulo Ferreira should not be sputtering against Sweden and Albania.  

Then again they did only give up 5 goals in 9 group qualifying matches and didn't struggle to score towards the end. There was also talk about how poorly they played against 117th ranked Cape Verde, drawing with them 0-0 in a World Cup warm-up.  They followed this however with a 3-1 demolition of Cameroon in which Ronaldo, Nani and Simao all looked dangerous, taking on defenders with great success throughout the match.  

Portugal to some extent has a Jekyll & Hyde mentality, but they have performed well enough to inspire some confidence in their last three major tournaments.  In Euro 2004 they lost in the final to Greece, in 2006 they lost in extra time in the semi-final to eventual runners-up France and in 2008 they lost to eventual runners-up Germany in the quarterfinals.  

The team has changed since 2006, with the like Figo and Rui Costa no longer part of the team, but they are now built around a player regarded by most as one of the top-2 players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo.  The goals poured in for him in his first year at Real Madrid and while he has struggled to perform to the same level internationally with Portugal his quality is undeniable and he is a threat every time he steps on the pitch.  

Nani gives them another attacking winger who ripped apart the English Premier League after his reinstatement into the first team at Manchester United in January.  Simao also gives them another extremely dangerous attacking option and Deco though no longer operating on his former level of greatness, can still conduct the orchestra from the midfield distributing the ball to Portugal's bevy of wingers and forwards.  

What gives Portugal a great chance to come through this summer is the emergence of their defense is now established as one of the best in international play. With a fit Pepe included in the roster to be paired alongside Bruno Alves at the heart of the defense, Portugal has proven to be stingy and unlikely to yield to opposition attacks. As was the case with Italy in 2006 who only yielded one goal in open play, an own goal, throughout the course of the tournament this is a key ingredient to success in international play.

International matches are rarely high scoring affairs and the most successful teams recently have been those that stay organized on the field and are able to maintain possession for lengthy periods of time, both qualityies Portugal possess.  Spain was lauded for playing attractive, free-flowing football en route to winning Euro 2008, but their defense which didn't concede in the knockout stages of that tournament was the real key, by squashing out opposition attacks.

Portugal landed in a tricky spot being drawn in the same group BrazilIvory Coast and North Korea.  They will have a tough time getting out of a group with a World Cup favorite and a team regarded as one of Africa's most talented, but I expect them to get out and at +2800 as of right now to win the whole thing outright they represent great value with the talent at their disposal.