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This article first appeared on Soccerly.com
Surprising may be too strong a word, but Portugal’s provisional World Cup squad certainly has its peculiarities.
Gone are some of Paulo Bento’s regular “reserve” call-ups, such as Danny (Zenit) and Ruben Micael (Braga), and in their stead the manager has injected some “new blood” into the team.
To the cynic, Bento’s selection could suggest that the Portuguese already has his eye on the next European Championships – not an entirely outlandish notion given the his recent contract extension with the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) – however, if anything, Portugal’s provisional squad hints at the fact that there are a lot more roster spots up for grabs than people might think.
While most national team managers are mulling over the last three or four players that will complete their final twenty-three-man roster, Bento could realistically be auditioning up to ten players for six potential slots, with every sector open to some change.
In goal, the only confirmed spots belong to Rui Patricio and Beto. Patricio has been the first choice keeper for most of Bento’s tenure, but Beto’s form with Europa League winners, Sevilla, could force Sporting’s captain to the bench.
The battle for the last seat on the plane to Brazil will be between Lyon’s Anthony Lopes, and Braga’s Eduardo. The French-born Lopes has impressed when called upon to defend Lyon’s nets, and is considered by some to be a real challenger to Patricio in the future. Eduardo is a well-traveled veteran whose career with the national team took a dip after an unsuccessful loan spell with Benfica during the 2011-2012 season. Eduardo’s experience, which includes a stellar performance in South Africa, should give him the slight edge over Lopes.
At the back, only João Pereira, Fabio Coentrão, Pepe, Bruno Alves, and Luis Neto, have their World Cup presence guaranteed. Taking into account that Bento will most likely take four center-backs and three full-backs to Brazil, four players will be competing for the last two spots. Ricardo Costa and Rolando have a fairly even contest at center-back. Costa was one of the few consistent performers for Valencia when the Spanish club was struggling at the beginning of the season, and his performances have only improved under new manager Juan Antonio Pizzi. Rolando has finally found a home in Italy – first with Napoli and now with Inter, after a turbulent last season at FC Porto, which put his international career in jeopardy. Both players ended the season in good form, but Costa’s ability to play as a right-back in a pinch could be the deciding factor.
Advantage: Ricardo Costa
Vitorino Antunes should start the Portuguese camp with a slight advantage over André Almeida for the last full-back position. The lefty has cemented his place at Malaga where his consistency, solid defending, and attacking prowess have endeared him to the La Rosaleda faithful. Interestingly, when Fabio Coentrão’s club form began to dip, there was some talk that Antunes could have usurped the Real Madrid player, who has often been criticized for his lapses in concentration. The younger Almeida is only now beginning to assert himself at Benfica after figuring prominently with Belenenses and Portugal’s U21 team. While Antunes is strictly a left-back who can sometimes occupy a role a little further up field, Almeida can figure at either full-back position, and is comfortable playing as a holding midfielder. Almeida’s utility-man status, which was on display in the Europa League final against Sevilla, will certainly give Bento something to think about, especially if the manager is considering taking an extra wing attacker to Brazil in lieu of a center-midfielder.
Advantage: Andre Almeida
The center of Portugal’s midfield is the team’s most predictable sector. Bento has rarely strayed from his preferred 433, which has more often than not featured Miguel Veloso as the anchor-man in the inverted triangle, along with João Moutinho and Raul Meireles. Those three will more than likely be among the first eleven picked to face Germany in the first game of Group G. William Carvalho’s meteoric rise at Sporting has also all but guaranteed his inclusion in the twenty-three, leaving one definite opening – possibly two – up for grabs.
Ruben Amorim is surely ahead of the competition since he has been one of Bento’s regular call-ups for some time. Additionally, the Benfica man can play anywhere in Portugal’s inverted triangle, although he’s more adept at sitting deeper. His club teammate, André Gomes, though more physically imposing, is a similar player, who likes to sit in front of the back four and propel the team forward. At twenty, Gomes is a prospect with a bright future, but his lack of playing time is an enormous obstacle. Like Gomes, Joao Mario’s chances of making the final cut are slim. A product of Sporting’s famous Alcochete academy, Mario is a technically gifted box-to-box midfielder who spent most of the season with Sporting’s B team before making the jump to Vitoria Setubal on loan, where he has impressed. There is certainly a place for Mario in the Portugal set-up, but it may be a little early.
Advantage: Ruben Amorim
Portugal’s forward line, particularly the wing – what the Portuguese call, “extremos” – will see the most changes. Incredibly, one could argue that apart from the untouchable Cristiano Ronaldo, only Silvestre Varela is safe. Nani, who has traditionally been a big part of Bento’s set-up (he played in ten qualifiers), finds himself fighting for a spot – an almost unthinkable situation only a few months ago. However, the mercurial winger has had a season to forget, having been plagued by nagging injuries and David Moyes’ questionable tactical decisions at Manchester United. Perhaps, the best way to describe Nani’s situation is that a ticket to Brazil is his to lose rather than to win.
The same might be said about Vieirinha. A standout with Portugal at every youth level, the Wofsburg player never made the transition to the senior squad that most expected. In fact, his first call-up came in March of last year and was only the result of a last minute injury to the now marginalized Danny. Vieirinha’s performances for Portugal haven’t exactly delighted the Portuguese, as evidenced by a recent poll that ranked him at the bottom of the winger pecking order, but his experience in the Bundesliga should work in his favor.
Since it is possible that Bento will include five wingers in his squad, Ricardo Quaresma, Rafa, and Ivan Cavaleiro could be fighting for the two remaining openings. Most Portuguese will tell you that Quaresma is sure to make the team, now that the one-time Bidone d’Oro winner (the award given to Serie A’s most disappointing player) is back at FC Porto, where he played his best football. Still, Quaresma brings a lot of baggage, and Bento has been quick to dismiss any players that could rock the boat (think Ricardo Carvalho). There’s no question that the former Barcelona, Inter, and Besiktas player is incredibly gifted, but one has to wonder whether his personality will allow his talent to finally shine through for his country.
Talent is something that Rafa and Ivan Cavaleiro have plenty of, but both players are clearly on the outside looking in. Rafa has established himself as a key player from Braga, but without any real international pedigree at the youth level (he was not selected to play in last summer’s U20 World Cup), and after a disappointing debut with the national team against Cameroon in March, chances are Bento is examining the youngster for the future. Cavaleiro, who also received his first cap against Cameroon, has attracted more attention than the Braga man, particularly for his trickery and goal scoring with Benfica B. The knock against him is that he has not yet imposed himself on Benfica’s senior side; although, he has impressed when given the chance.
Advantage: Nani, Vieirinha, and Quaresma
Eusebio aside, Portugal’s biggest problem has been finding a striker that can score regularly. Ronaldo has certainly alleviated the problem, but even he needs someone to share the burden with. Unfortunately, neither Helder Postiga, nor Hugo Almeida have proved to be consistent scorers, yet both will find themselves on the plane with the rest of the team. Despite plenty of media criticism, Bento’s faith in Postiga appears to be unwavering, mostly as a result of the Lazio man’s ability to maintain possession and his penchant for scoring jaw-dropping goals. Almeida’s time with Portugal looked to be up a few months ago, but his size may be deemed necessary against German defenders. The forward also has a cannon of a left foot. Braga’s Eder will in all probability find himself on the roster, as well. The broad-shouldered striker has impressed with his club, and while he has yet to score for his country, his physicality might be what Portugal is missing up-front.
Goalkeepers (3): Rui Patricio, Beto, Eduardo.
Defenders (7): João Pereira, Fabio Coentrão, André Almeida, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Luis Neto, Ricardo Costa.
Midfielders (5): João Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles, William Carvalho, Ruben Amorim.
Forwards (8): Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Silvestre Varela, Ricardo Quaresma, Vieirinha, Helder Postiga, Hugo Almeida, Eder.